It was one of the most significant phone calls Bruce Burrell has ever received, a call that signaled a wave of destruction was headed Calgary’s way.
“I got a phone call about five in the morning on Thursday from Len McCharles, who was the deputy running Emergency Management at the time, and he asked me if I was aware of what had happened in Canmore. And I actually said ‘no’ and he said ‘there has been major flooding in Canmore and it’s heading this way.’”
Burrell, Calgary’s fire chief and the director of the city’s Emergency Management Agency, was planning to fly to New Jersey that day for his brother’s wedding.
“I got up, turned on the 5:30 morning news, saw the images from Canmore and then called [McCharles] back. I said ‘open the Emergency Operations Centre.’”
Burrell was in the EOC for 48 hours straight and while emergency officials had access to video and photographs of the flood, it wasn’t until Burrell left the centre for the first time that the magnitude of the disaster hit him.
“Once you step outside and you actually see it and hear it, it paints a completely different picture as to what you are dealing with.”
“I think my single most vivid memory of the flood – when I did get out of here [the EOC] after a couple of days, I managed to walk down to the Centre Street bridge. At that time, it was still flowing quite high from the top and looked like it was about 20 inches from the bottom of the upper deck.”
Above: After crossing police warning tape a spectator walks out onto the Centre Street bridge lower deck to photograph the raging flood waters of the Bow River near downtown Calgary, Alberta on June 21, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Larry MacDougal
Burrell also recalls the first time he saw Prince’s Island Park after the flood swamped downtown.
“Seeing the park inundated, looking at the brown water through the downtown core and listening to the roar – it was that audio and visual piece, seeing the impact of the water that was flowing through the city.”
As the first anniversary of the big flood approaches, Burrell admits to keeping a close eye on the rivers.
“I look at the Bow and Elbow every time I go by them. We still have a lot of recovery work to do; I still look at the damage that has yet to be repaired.”
But Burrell is proud of what the city has accomplished so far, both in terms of recovery and flood mitigation efforts.
And he says the city couldn’t have done it without hundreds of unsung heroes.
“We had some really good heroic work that was done by volunteer citizens, contractors, members of the city and employees of the city and the Canadian military. This was an “all hands on deck ” effort and there were a lot of tremendous saves that frankly nobody has ever talked about, probably because there were too many of them.
“There were a lot of incredible things that went on during the flood and I think that is what Calgarians need to be proud of.”