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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi recalls memories of Alberta floods

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi with his Hell or High Water Calgary Stampede T-shirt and Smithbuilt Hat in Calgary, Alberta, July 3, 2013.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

On the morning of Thursday, June 20, 2013, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was giving a run-of-the-mill urban planning speech to a Canadian Club audience in Toronto. As soon as he exited the stage, Mr. Nenshi's world shifted as he learned large swaths of Calgary were about to be swamped with flood waters. Today, some parts of the city continue to rebuild. During an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Nenshi recalled his most vivid memories of the Bow and Elbow river floods that were part of wider flooding in southern Alberta last year – Canada's most expensive natural disaster.

"When I stepped off the stage I got a briefing, I understood what was happening, and I realized we had to move quickly. So from Toronto, I authorized the signing of the state of local emergency. It was the first time we've ever done that in Calgary. A little bit later we authorized the evacuation zone, 35,000 homes. I was doing that all from Toronto because I didn't want to be out of commission on a plane. So it was after everything was proceeding, the evacuation was happening and almost completed that I finally felt comfortable getting on a plane."

From Calgary's airport, the mayor was brought directly to the city's emergency operations centre (EOC). There, Mr. Nenshi got an update from city staff and spoke to reporters in a late-night news conference. Just after midnight, he left on a three-hour tour of the city.

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"I talked to workers at the Glenmore water-treatment plant, I saw police officers evacuating buildings in Chinatown and I spoke to firefighters on the barricades in the evacuated zones. I talked to environmental scientists who were monitoring the flow of the water all that night. I came back to the EOC about 3:30 a.m. and had our first-ever 3:45 a.m. press conference. And then I just kept going … I didn't get to bed really until about 11 p.m. the next night. I think I counted it as 43 hours. And I did have a one-hour nap in there somewhere."

"So I saw so much stuff, from the ground, that night with the darkness, the eerie quiet. The power was turned off, the neighbourhoods were evacuated, and all I could hear was the water. All I could hear was the river standing by the Peace Bridge. The next days I was in two different helicopters looking over the whole city – one with the Prime Minister and the premier, and just seeing Prince's Island completely under water, and seeing Bowness completely submerged. Over the next couple of days as the water receded, I was seeing homes with piles of what looked like garbage in front of the house. And I always reminded myself that looks like trash, but that's kids' report cards, that's their artwork, it's the couch that someone saw in a catalogue and they saved up for, and that was the one they always wanted. And there it is all on the lawn waiting for my colleagues to drive the garbage trucks and take it away.

"But the two images that will stick in my head forever: No. 1, the image of that volunteer covered from head to toe in mud and bitten by mosquitoes, working incredibly hard to save the home of someone she's never met. I started seeing that as the waters receded on the Saturday and Sunday.

"And the final image – it's a bit cheesy but it's so true – happened two weeks after the flood. I was in the community of Bowness, walking up Bow Crescent, just talking to homeowners about how they were doing – going door-to-door. Really, they were probably surprised to see me ring the bell. Two or three houses up from Hextall Park, I met this couple who were back in their house but there was nothing there. It was stripped to the studs. I'm sure they were sleeping in hammocks. It was like indoor camping. And they had found a piece of plywood in their basement, and they scrawled a message on it, and they nailed it to the tree out front. And it said: 'We lost some stuff. We gained a community.' And honestly, every time I think back on the flood, that's what I think about."

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