Monday, 15 July 2013

After the flood

John Lennon said that life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. Yes, life does that. The series of events that has delayed my blog entries started with a new computer and new operating system. Like many people, I discovered that going from Windows XP home edition and 32 bits to Windows 7 Professional and 64 bits was not without its problems. Many applications and even documents just could not make the transition. Retrospectively, this was just a trifle. I got new software, learned how to use it and came up with some work-a rounds.

Then the flood hit. It was the most devastating flood in Alberta's history. We had a lot of rain in the Calgary area and the ground was sodden. At first, this seemed fortunate for all of the gardeners – this was the time of year when the last frosts had passed and everything was planted. Usually, there is little rain at that time and the seed beds have to be watered frequently. So rain is good. I even regretted not gardening any more – the conditions seemed perfect.

Artist friend Monte Christoffersen showing six
feet of river silt on the trees near the Elbow River
in Calgary
The problem was a weather system sitting in the mountains, moist air from the coast hit the Rockies and condensed causing heavy rain that just did not let up. The rivers swelled, the dam lakes filled and there was nowhere for the water to go in the Bow Valley but downstream to Calgary. Nothing could have prevented that. To the south of Calgary, the town of High River was devastated from the flood of its own river. 5,200 homes and businesses were damaged by the flood – many of them beyond repair. The town was uninhabitable and four of the five flood fatalities were due to that particular flood. The fifth victim was an elderly woman in Calgary who refused to be evacuated. She drowned in her own apartment. Although many parts of Calgary were also devastated, we have lots of high ground. I live 200 feet above the high water level, and walking around my neighborhood, there was no sign of anything wrong at all.

Downtown Calgary was without power and virtually a ghost town. Many houses and businesses in the flood plain of the Bow and Elbow rivers had flood levels of about six feet. The loss of property was almost unimaginable. Through it all, Naheed Nenshi, the Mayor of Calgary, soon became a folk hero by taking control of everything and helping to keep the morale high. The only complaints he received were from people telling him that he needed to sleep once in awhile!

Calgary has long been known as “the volunteer capital of Canada”, and in the face of such adversity, the volunteer numbers swelled. At first, travel was restricted. Various roads and bridges were closed and everyone was told to stay at home as much as possible for four days. The danger to life was extreme near the rivers. There was virtually no looting and Calgarians really came together even more than usual. Many other Canadians also came to help – even Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Party Leader, Justin Trudeau went to High River, literally “mucking in” with the other volunteers there.

Winston, 1999-2013
Although above the water, I was enmeshed in my own personal tragedy. Winston, my 14 year old Border Collie/ Black lab Cross had a series of fatal seizures and I could not get him to a vet. For those four days, I kept him as comfortable as possible. He could not stand or even sit up. He had no bladder or bowel control and was refusing food and water. After two days, I managed to get him to drink again. I put in 20 hour days just keeping him as clean and comfortable as possible. He responded well to this attention and was not in any pain. In that time he only whined a couple of times, stopping as soon as I stroked his back. On the fifth day, travel was again possible for me, and with my daughter and her husband, we took Winston for his last visit to the vet. He was the best dog I ever owned and was very popular with my friends and neighbours, many of them were amazed at his intelligence and abilities. He had been part of my family for 14 years and I miss him terribly.

After the flood and Winston's death, I was able to help out a friend a little with his flood damaged shop – fortunately, he only had a couple of inches of water and little stock was lost. He had also been temporarily displaced from his apartment but is back there now – even though the elevators won't be working for a few weeks and he lives on the sixth floor.

The flood could have been much worse. I knew this because in 1998/9 I drew the emergency “worst case scenario” flood maps for the Bow river. The biggest danger of all would have been a dam breach at Lake Minnewanka in the mountains. That lake is seventeen miles long and 466 feet deep. It has an earth dam. Usually, this is the strongest of all dam types, but if the water overspills the dam, then it will erode and the dam will fail. This fact was not released to the public, but the dam workers were able to release water from a spillway which caused far less damage. Had Minnewanka dam failed, there would have been two stories of water downtown and Calgary would have been uninhabitable for a long time.


  1. very very sorry to hear of the death of winston john,i know how much he meant to you.i have allways ownd pets[3 cats and a boxer dog at the moment] and they are part of the advice is buy a small puppy or even better rescue a dog from a pound,allthough it might be to soon after the death of winston its certainly something you should consider.
    at least the floods missed you,look forward to reading your blog in the future.

  2. Thank you, Kyri. Yes, I have been looking into getting another dog. It is interesting how friends who are not dog owners are telling me to wait, while those who do own dogs are saying to get another one right away!

    About all that I have left to consider is what kind of dog to get -- I am leaning heavily toward a border collie (or perhaps a border collie cross like Winston). I like working dogs because I like to have a dog around most of the time -- and I can keep them well occupied -- I pity anyone (and the dog) if they expect to own a border collie and try to leave it at home alone all day! I have had two border collies in my life as well as Winston, who was a cross. I didn't know you have a boxer -- they have such a nice temperament!

    Future floods are a real possibility -- it has been getting much wetter here over the last few years. The city is revising its ideas about building on the flood plains. Those whose homes were badly damaged can restore, but not rebuild. It is a wise move -- rivers tend to erode new channels after a flood making it even more possible for future floods. The biggest danger here is not the large Bow River, but the smaller Elbow river. The former has been much lower than its historic levels and it generally runs in a much deeper channel. I can't say for sure that global warming is a factor -- but the climate is changing and nothing like this has happened here in recorded history.

    Hoping you and your family are doing well.

    All the best,


  3. Hi John,
    Great Blog...I love your northern adventure with Monte....Takes me back to the time when You Monte and I climbed up some river trail ( Who knows where)It's been 40 odd years since that trek.I do believe its time for another.
    All the best...Shawn
    PS.. Do you still outback in Loafers ?
    PPS.. Sorry you lost your Winston Buddy . We just lost our Male Beagle. Ambler was 15 and real pal.

  4. Great to hear from you Shawn, and thanks! Yes, that was the Cougar Canyon trip when I had my broken arm in a cast and it rained all night. The creek was running pretty high by morning and where we first thought of camping, there was a waterfall at that spot in the morning. I've graduated to leather shoes (SAS from Texas). perhaps one day I'll actually buy hiking boots. Another trek would be great -- how do you feel about grizzlies? ;-) I'm sorry about Ambler too. Life is not the same without them eh?



  5. John,

    Just came across your blog while preparing a presentation in Estonia on emergency management. I was in High River during the floods as part of the response and was aware of the issue of the effects of the dam if it failed. On a side note, I had to put my 18 year old border collie cross ("Buddy") down a few years ago and remember spending the last few days stroking him and just trying be there for the last few days. Your blog brought back two events very near to me. Sorry for your loss and thanks for the blog.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. My own experiences pale in comparison...

    18 years is very ancient, indeed, for a border collie cross. You must have given him a wonderful life.

    All the best,