June 18, 2018

How were you affected by the 2013 Calgary flood?

On 5th anniversary of southern Alberta disaster, President Cannon looks back

Thursday, June 20, 2013: That’s the day southern Alberta was hit by the worst flooding in the province’s history. Five years ago this week, heavy rainfall produced catastrophic flooding in rivers and tributaries, disrupting the lives of tens of thousands while leaving a trail of physical and personal devastation that would take years to repair and rebuild.

Although the University of Calgary campuses weren’t directly affected by floodwaters, more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff responded to the natural disaster with an inspiring outpouring of volunteer labour, logistical expertise, and community leadership. 

Memories from the flood.

Memories from the flood.

University of Calgary

  • Above, revisiting the flood of 2013, clockwise from top: Members of the Emergency Operations Group meet on campus; volunteers help mop up hard-hit High River; AUPE members deliver donations; student volunteers help at the Siksika Nation donation centre; students from the faculties of social work, medicine and nursing assist evacuees staying at Yamnuska Hall; medical students prepare to remove sewage debris near Calgary; then-MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans visits evacuees; nursing team helps East Calgary residents resettle; medical student Ponn Benjamin finished his exams despite losing his High River home; Lisa Young, dean of Graduate Studies, helps out at Siksika; a team of students, faculty and staff prepare to leave campus for a day assisting flood victims. University of Calgary file photos 

The campus stood together in a spirit of compassion and roll-up-your-sleeves commitment in a myriad of ways — from helping victims (including some fellow staff members) clean out the muck, to providing free legal and business guidance, to offering emotional and medical support, to rounding up food and clothing donations, to providing free babysitting for children and pets, to offering temporary housing for victims and emergency responders, to helping flood victims stand in line for government cheques, to raising funds, to researching the environmental and human toll.  

“I was so inspired because everybody was putting up their hand saying, ‘How can I help?’” recalls Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary. 

“Being a part of this campus when the community is hit hard draws us closer together. The level of citizenship, our role as a strong community institution, and frankly, the expectation for us to step up in times of need, are felt on this campus,” Cannon says.

UToday spoke with President Cannon about how students, faculty and staff jumped in to help meet the needs of the community, and some of the key learnings for the campus.

Question: Where were you when you first heard how serious the flooding was?

A: During a General Faculties Council meeting that I was chairing, we started hearing there was rain and there could be a possibility of flood. That evening, I was downtown at the Petroleum Club, hosting a dinner with industry leaders to talk about our new Energy Research Strategy and to get their feedback. I was surprised people even showed up at this dinner. As the evening was rolling on, people's phones started ringing because some of them were in flood areas. Some people started drifting out of the meeting and some literally went home to find they had been evacuated. 

Q: Has any other event had this much impact on the operation of the campus in your time here?

A: The two things of a similar scale were the flood and the Fort McMurray wildfires in 2017. Of course, the wildfires occurred further away and many evacuees came to the city. We were a responder and a host for people who had been displaced from Fort McMurray. With the flood, it was our own community being impacted. After the mayor asked people to keep off the roads, we closed the university (from Friday, June 21 through Tuesday, June 25). 

Q: More than 1,000 volunteers from the university helped respond to the flood. What strikes you about this outpouring of volunteerism?

A: What was so odd about the flood was that there was such a juxtaposition of those who were impacted and those who weren't. You had such complete, utter devastation in some parts of the city. I live on the west side of the city on high ground, and I recall looking out my window that Saturday morning saying, “It's a beautiful, blue-sky, spring day in Calgary.” People wanted to help not just their neighbours, but friends, maybe family members, or colleagues who were impacted. And helping displaced people through the university was one way people felt that they could personally contribute, but also cope and have some positive impact under very, very trying circumstances. It was really inspiring.

Q: What do you think, as a campus, we learned from the experience?

A: We've got strong emergency response plans in place. People put their hands up to help, and they knew what to do. They got down to work, they rolled up their sleeves, and they helped out in the biggest ways and the smallest ways. It may have been looking after pets, it may have been entertaining kids in the gym, or it may have been co-ordinating directly with Calgary’s emergency response. It was fascinating to see how quickly the community on campus came together and how much stronger we came out of that.

Q: Do you think we're more prepared now than we were?

A: I think we were prepared at the time, but we are a learning community. And so, whenever there's something, whether it's flooding, fires, who knows what's next, there's always a period of debriefing, of looking at what we did well and how we could have done better. And not just on campus, but working with other community partners — whether it's the police or emergency response for Calgary or the province. Because at the end of the day we're part of a bigger system, so we need to ensure that we're always upping our game. We need to make sure those lines of communication and co-ordination continue to get stronger.

Q: The university has seen many examples of research related to the flood, whether it’s looking back at flood damage or looking forward at future risks. As a scholar, what would you say is important about these lines of inquiry?

A: Maybe I’m thinking as an engineer first, but we saw a lot of research happening into what we can do to prevent that from happening again, and the technical mitigation strategies to prevent that level of disaster. But when you think of the breadth of scholarly capacity in all its dimensions across the university, we also saw research being done on the mental and emotional impacts on people and communities. A large, research-intensive university like the University of Calgary can make such an impact on its community, because we can look at something from so many different disciplines and so many different angles. We look at issues on different scales from the individual up to the community and contribute in that way.

Q: Were there any other single standout moments for you?

A: Coming onto campus and seeing the preparedness here, and the first responders who were staying on our campus. I remember visiting with our Emergency Operations Group and seeing their level of confidence and commitment — it was just about getting to work and getting the job done, all hands on deck. It was extremely impressive. Seeing our students and staff going out into communities  and self-organizing to a large extent, to provide front-line support. And having them go as members of the University of Calgary community, I was really proud. Even our chancellor at the time (Jim Dinning) had students from the university show up at his house to help! Those are moments when you step back and say, “Wow.” Again, the level of pride that I have in what is possible, even in the darkest times, you just sit back and you're inspired.