No, it wasn't. To paraphrase my response at the time, I still don't know that I have it in me. I've started this dozens of times, only to repeatedly give it up as hopeless. It's been a very strange, very exhausting, and very inexpressible weekend. It feels like we've lived an entire year compressed into the space of 3 days. I don't know how to describe “purple” to a blind person. I don't know how to describe the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth to a deaf person. Spock didn't know how to describe being dead to Dr. McCoy.
I don't know how to describe the floods to someone who wasn't there.
I do know I couldn't do justice in any attempt to describe it to the me of 8 days ago. After my abortive attempts, the best approach I've been able to settle on is this. What follows is a collection of quick snapshots; stories from Thursday through Monday. Each story, taken individually, is a momentary pearl of time. Collectively, my hope is that they may begin to capture the city, the atmosphere, what it was like to be there.
The stories are in no particular order: indeed I have explicitly randomized them.
I also do not have any photos, except for the one at the end. I was too busy with everything else to bother with such seeming trivialities. There are plenty of photos on twitter, on facebook, on the news websites, on other blogs, on everywhere else you look. Most of you have seen many photos already. I don't have anything to add.
I was about to go outside again. Opened the drawer to get out another pair of dry socks, and... there were none left. On my bed, safely out of reach of the cats, I had lined up to dry all the socks I'd worn already the last few days, one pair for each trip outside. Lined in chronological order, they also thus construed a spectrum of sogginess, ordered from most-wet to, um, slightly less-wet. I could toss them in the dryer, but it seemed pointless as they would just get soaked again in seconds. And besides, it's not like my shoes were dry anyway. So I shrugged, grabbed the least wet pair, put them on and went out.
I've discovered I own eleven pairs of socks.
- food trucks
They were there again. One of the most omnipresent signs of a city under water has been the food trucks. Every where. Fanning out to all four quadrants, finding anyone in need, everyone in a shelter: the brightly painted fleet of the city's food trucks. Free food! For anyone evacuated. Free food! For anyone in a shelter, wondering when they can go home, and what they will find when they do. Free food! For anyone volunteering, helping out their fellow citizen. Free food! Just because everyone needs a little pick-me-up. Wherever there were people helping, or people being helped, or just people. The food trucks were there.
- clean water
The city assured everyone the municipal water supply was just fine. “But please be considerate of the amount you use as our system is being stressed.” I had faith, but not everyone did. The shelter was asking for water, and I had those two 5-gallon jugs, intended for the cooler standing guard by the kitchen door. I would be fine on tap water for the next couple of days. So out I went, dragging my hand cart behind me with the jugs loaded up.
The car screeched to a halt beside me, the driver rolled down the window. “Where did you get those?” she frantically asked. “Where??!?” I shrugged my shoulders: “I could tell you, but I got them, like, three months ago. I don't know how useful it would be.” It wouldn't be the last time I went through this conversation on the way to the shelter. Not by a long shot.
- the old hotel
The drop-in center, right beside the river, was one of the first to go. Probably as early as Thursday afternoon, the rising waters forced a decampment to the former Quality Hotel in the northeast, far away from the rivers and the chaos. Instead when I arrived to drop off supplies, I discovered a little adjunct colony of chaos, created there in the abandoned building. Perishables in the former gym, non-perishables in the lounge. Water in the lobby, toiletries in the old swimming pool. Blankets and towels in the kitchen. Those in charge were volunteers, recruited on-the-spot when they came by 5 minutes previously, and asked if there was anything they could do to help. Given a task by someone, also a volunteer, who had arrived maybe 10 minutes before that and gone through a similar ritual then. In the half hour I was there, I don't think I met a single volunteer who had been there longer than an hour. Certainly no-one who “knew” what they were doing.
Turtles, all the way down.
- noise of the city
The strangest thing, looking across the valley at downtown, was how quiet it all was. And yet... not quiet; rather just absent of all the noise of the city. No traffic, no voices. Instead, the air was filled with a different kind of noise: water. Rocks tumbling crashing and cracking in the middle of the neverending torrent of water suddenly unbridled. Water smashing into bridges, rocks crashing into trees. Yes, water smashes. Fast water like this smashes. And under everything, when you stood still, and listened to the water long enough. Under everything, the constant droning monotone of a legion of worker bees. The humming and buzzing of a thousand and one pumps, valiantly trying to empty the city streets of the water, dumping it back into the ever so slowly-receding river.
One of my favourite tweets:
Montreal's mayor: arrested; Toronto's mayor: disgraced; Calgary's mayor: awake for 40 hours doing his job. #nap4nenshi #yycflood #dedication
- life goes on
On Sunday, life outside the valley was again close enough to normal that my friend Namrata's wedding was still on. Namrata, a Hindu, was getting married to Bryan, an Irish Mormon. One half of the wedding was held in saris and sherwanis, the other half in tartan. The reception was held in a former Pizza Hut. Any other week, such an event would have been all I could write about. Now it seems almost quotidian.
In retrospect, last Wednesday was not, after all, the best time to repaint the AWA front steps and porch. Before it had even set, rain washed all the paint off the steps and onto the sidewalk outside, turning it a streaky, dirty olive green. A day later the waters came, and washed the sidewalk clean.
We will try again, sometime later this summer.
- crescent heights
For the most part, people heeded the mayor's plaintive cries to stay away from the river, stay out of downtown, stay out of the valleys. Instead, they thronged by the hundreds along the top of crescent heights. Perched atop this makeshift amphitheatre, we all gazed out over the city, some huddled under umbrellas, some out in the open, defying the weather to cow us, all watching. Watching the flood waters creep, rise, and rush through the streets below, breaking loose of the now roaring river and drowning it, rendering its former boundaries first indistinct, then finally, completely invisible. The food trucks were there to cater. Late into the night as downtown turned an eerie inky black rent only by the the flashes of helicopters, blockades and emergency vehicles, the audience watched and listened; the food trucks kept on serving.
- a canadian moment
At the corner of 14 St. and 5 Ave. the traffic light was out. Indeed, there was no power anywhere in Hillhurst, with the nearest working light at least a kilometre away. Nor was there any motorized traffic, to speak of. Only a block or two away, waters were lapping at buildings, and roads impassable shortly thereafter. Police blockades were keeping all non-essential vehicles off the main roads anyway. Nevertheless the umbrella'd man a block ahead of me strode up to the light, pressed the button, and waited. Content to wait for a light with no power and no traffic to direct. I passed him by, turned the corner onto 14th, and wandered up the hill, towards the part of the city that still had agency.
- calgary's new swimming pool
You may have seen photos of the inside of Calgary's latest olympic-size swimming venue, formerly known as the Saddledome. The water came just up to our seasons-ticket seats. So far as we can tell, we would have been sitting dry, but with our feet in the water. The players might have had a bit more on their plate.
By Wednesday, the (more traditional) municipal Bowview swimming pool was already open, glistening aquamarine, and full of kids enjoying the early arrival of their summer holidays.
- soundtrack to a flood
I picked up Skye Wallace's Bison Bison at the Hillhurst farmer's market last Wednesday; the solstice market where AWA had a display. Skye was playing as part of a lineup of artists who were in town to play the Sled Island Music Festival, but had been invited to the market to play a preview of the festival. Standing by my display at the back of the market, I found her voice really enchanting. I was lucky enough to run into her on my way out, and made sure to buy copies of her albums.
I listened to Bison Bison over and over all weekend long. It has become my soundtrack to the flood.
Sled Island was cancelled this year. I hope Skye made out okay.
AWA was open again on Monday, and I've been at work since. Back to so-called normal. I haven't been able to help out at all since; instead only able to watch twitter, watch the news, hear all the calls and requests for volunteers, and not be able to escape the office. I have spent the last week feeling frustrated and resentful. It's nothing so melodramatic as survivor guilt of course. But I wonder if it's not, at least, a distant cousin.
- down the hill
I stood at the top of the hill and looked down into the valley, for quite a long while. It was still early on Friday and emergency services had yet to make many forays into the rain. Nevertheless I hesitated. Things were normal enough topside. But there was no-one down there. No-one in the streets, no traffic, no power, no noise. I wondered how much trouble I would get into by venturing into the no-go zone. But AWA was near the edge of the zone... only three blocks from the base of the hill. I could just run in, check the situation, run back out, and be back up the hill before anyone even noticed I was there. Couldn't I?
- the onset
I think the most surprising thing was just how fast it all came on. I was originally supposed to run in the K100 Kananaskis Relay Race on Saturday. Late Thursday morning, all was still normal; we heard something about high water levels in Canmore and the fact that Cougar Creek was running high. When I left work for squash around 4:30, there was a report that there was a mudslide on the Kananaskis highway. “But don't worry,” the K100 website reassured us, crews anticipated having the slide cleaned up by Saturday, and the race was still on. By the time the squash was over, and I was back online, not much later than 7:30, the world had Changed. 17 communities in Calgary had received mandatory evacuation notices, a dozen more towns and cities outside, the same. Those numbers would double within the next few hours. Travel inside the city was discouraged, and on the highways outside, banned, with road closures everywhere west of Calgary. The race, needless to say, had been canceled. Barely three hours, from normal to a disaster area. The river was rising fast enough to be seen by the naked eye.
Of all the things I will least forget, right at the top would be the speed of the onset.
- monitoring twitter
I brought my laptop back from AWA and set it up with the intent of getting work done at home, where I had (at least intermittent) power and internet connectivity. After not too long, I gave it up as hopeless, and instead just sat, watching the twitter feed scroll and scroll and scroll. Periodically, when I saw a call for supplies, I grabbed what I could and headed out, or went out to fill up my hand cart at one of the stores that was still open. Returning home, I got back onto twitter, and resumed watching the scroll. Throughout Friday, late into the night and then into Saturday morning, the alternating feeds of Twitter and supply runs, spiralling around and around each other; over and over and over.