Is Calgary ready if another disastrous flood hits?

Five years ago today thousands of Calgarians were scrambling to gather whatever belongings they could and get out of their homes as fast as possible.

The threat? Rapidly rising water that would devastate much of the city for days, weeks and years to come.

The flooding that hit southern Alberta in 2013 was Canada’s second-costliest natural disaster. Until wildfire ripped through the Fort McMurray region in 2016, it was the country’s costliest.

Calgary, a booming city nestled at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers, was one of the hardest hit communities; thousands were evacuated from their homes and the damages reached into the billions of dollars.

READ MORE: Tour of Calgary homes severely damaged in 2013 floods

So, what’s changed in the past five years? And is the city ready if another dramatic flood hits the region?

Big ticket items – infrastructure


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Much of the city’s work since 2013 has been focused on infrastructure improvements, some of which involved funding and partnerships with other governments and parties.

On a local level, restoration of river banks, pipelines, utilities, electrical substations and buildings have been top priorities, according to Frank Frigo, the City of Calgary water department’s leader of watershed analysis.

“Our rivers are quite mobile and naturally rivers that will shift around,” Frigo told Global News.

WATCH: Residents were scrambling in June 2013 as floodwaters quickly crept into homes and businesses. Frank Frigo with the City of Calgary talks about the work done since and whether the city is prepared should it happen again.

Frigo said the Bow and Elbow rivers are considered “flashy” rivers, “so very much like a Ferrari and not a Smart car.”

That means the rivers have the capacity to reach extreme levels rapidly, which puts Calgary at a “unique level of vulnerability.”

“Unfortunately, in an urban context, allowing that degree of shift isn’t possible everywhere, so a great deal of work is done to arm our banks [and] quite a bit of work has been done to improve our storm and sanitary drainage systems to make them less likely to receive backup when water levels do rise, so that back flooding is not occurring into buildings.”

Barriers in areas like West Eau Claire, Pierce Estate Park and the Calgary Stampede grounds are already in place or nearly finished, and others are in the works.

READ MORE: How prepared is Calgary for major flooding?

Not all the infrastructure can be seen as you drive along the city’s main arteries. Some of the work is being done at important points up and downstream from the city core — like the Glenmore Reservoir and Ghost Lake dam.

In 2016, the province of Alberta reached an agreement with TransAlta which allows the government to make changes to the Ghost Reservoir between May 16 and July 7 to prevent flooding in Calgary. Changes were also made at three reservoirs in Kananaskis Country, which could boost flows on the Bow River during dry periods or provide extra floodwater storage. 

Ghost Lake reservoir west of Cochrane on June 2, 2015.

Dani Lantela / Global News

“We understand that the damage in 2013 was somewhere in the area of the $2-billion mark and that the net exposure at the time of 2013 annually equates to about $170 million per year,” Frigo said. “So over a decade, that’s $1.7 billion. Over 100 years, it’s something like $17 billion of risk.”

He said the work that’s been done in the years since has reduced that risk exposure by 30 per cent. The goal is to achieve a 200-year resilience level, which would mean some bank erosion, some pathway closures, but overall limited damage and interruption to downtown life.

READ MORE: Nature’s power and the long-lasting impacts on southern Alberta rivers

The city’s list of projects — derived from recommendations from the expert management panel put together after the flood — is vast, and some have lengthy timelines that have been concerning to area residents. But Frigo said as far as he’s concerned, everything is being done within a reasonable time frame.

“The scale of the work that’s involved to get to the full level of resilience Calgary needs and deserves is very significant,” he said.

“Some of the larger pieces, Springbank reservoir or a new reservoir on the Bow River, will take time to put in place and they do have to be done carefully, because they affect not only river flooding. They would affect things like drought, they would affect things like environmental function of our rivers, the aesthetic function of our rivers, recreation.

“So the fact that those kinds of investments aren’t complete yet doesn’t surprise me because the scale of those things is very much a case of ‘Rome can’t be built in a day.'”

WATCH: Global News online journalist Heide Pearson joins Global News Morning with details on an online series looking back at the Calgary flood and whether the city is ready if another major flood were to happen.

It’s hoped more will be done in coming years, including the expansion of the Glenmore Reservoir as well as the start of the Springbank Reservoir — a highly contentious project plagued by delays, most recently in May 2018.

Ground level – communication and collaboration

Along with infrastructure focused on mediation and resilience, the city says it has put a great deal of priority on communicating with those who would be directly affected by another major flood — residents.

Frigo said officials have worked hard on improving the communication tools the city uses to give citizens access to information, adding there’s still work to be done.

Calgarians look out over a flooded Calgary Stampede grounds and Saddledome in Calgary in June 2013.

Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press

He said there’s a short window where residents need to be extra vigilant — about eight weeks between May 15 to July 15 — which could mean the difference between a vehicle being damaged or saved, or documents being destroyed or secured in a safe place.

While brick-and-mortar projects and planning are important, floor preparation and response also have to come from a community level, according to Dr. Joshua Bezanson with the Centre for Excellence in Emergency Preparedness.

“Disasters are different than big emergencies, so the way you would respond to a big fire is different, fundamentally, than how you respond to a disaster,” Bezanson told Global News.

“Society doesn’t quite work the same way, so organizations have to work in different ways together, people have to work in different ways together and governments have to work in different ways together.”

Bezanson said in disaster situations, things like access to regular 911 services, normal first responder services and government resources aren’t always available, presenting a different set of challenges.

He said when it comes to getting ahead of those challenges, a lot of the work has to come down to a “cultural shift,” as “disaster only happens when society interacts with a certain hazard to cause harm.”

While many Calgarians want to see work done to improve the city’s flood readiness, opponents of some of the major projects, like the Springbank dam, have created roadblocks for infrastructure and projects that officials have deemed necessary to their plans.

READ MORE: Alberta’s Springbank reservoir faces another delay due to regulatory review

Since being announced by the provincial government in 2014, the Springbank dam has been marred by delay after delay as residents, environmentalists and political opponents have been trying to curb its construction.

Concerns have been raised over everything from the estimates around environmental work, environmental impacts and exploration to the costs of relocating roads. Opponents have also been critical of the government backtracking on a plan to scrap the Springbank dry dam in favour of another option in Kananaskis.

In an interview with Global News, Environment Minister Shannon Philips said “the project will proceed.”

“We studied all of the options when we first came into government and it was concluded that this was the right way to proceed,” she said.

“You can’t just wish some of these problems away, you need to fund them and we’ve made that commitment as a government.”

SEE BELOW: Maps from the City of Calgary show what the 2013 flood impact would have been with no response to control water flow, what did happen in 2013 and what it would look like if a similar flood happened after all mitigation and resiliency projects were completed. 

Bezanson said when people are living in floodplains, it’s important they understand how they’re interacting with nature and the possible impacts.

“Having that conversation can be difficult sometimes around actual mitigation,” he said.

“From a response standpoint, I think there have been some steps forward, but really the emphasis is on the mitigation effort first and then we rely on the response afterwards.”

The flooding that took much of southern Alberta by surprise in 2013 was what Bezanson calls a “focusing event.”

“It was a big disruptive event, it was a different way of doing business, and in many ways it was kind of a landmark event that changed the way that we respond to big events in the province.”

WATCH: Before the floods of 2013, many first responders in Alberta didn’t have experience with major disasters. Five years later, Dr. Joshua Bezanson with the Centre for Excellence in Emergency Preparedness says that perspective has changed dramatically.

Bezanson said prior to 2013, many first responders in the province wouldn’t have had much experience dealing with a major disaster. Now, by 2018, the city and province are national leaders in disaster response, he said.

“Most first responders in this province have had exposure to at least one big disaster and it’s really been a culture shift for emergency services – how we work together, how we train together and how we focus on responding during those major events.”

READ MORE: Calgary flood: 5 years later – Photos show dramatic changes from then to now

Should Calgarians be worried about another ‘one-in-100-year flood?’

Five years, millions of dollars and countless meetings and consultations later, a big question on many minds is: Have the City of Calgary and the province of Alberta done enough to protect the city and surrounding areas from major devastation from a future flood?

Frigo is confident the work that’s been done would mean less destruction overall in the city.

“We’re recognizing through…both with the understanding from 2013 as well as with aspects like a changing climate, that flood risk is something that Calgary does want to address,” Frigo said.

“I’m very pleased that the work that’s been able to be completed in the last five years has reduced the net risk by 30 per cent. Like I said, important other projects are going on.

“Would I love more resilience? Absolutely. But certainly this is a very large-scale problem, this is a $17-billion problem that we are wrestling with. And certainly a problem of that scale, we can’t expect that it would be mitigated.”

Rising water floods the Bow River in downtown Calgary on June 21, 2013.

ADAM KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Frigo and Bezanson agree it’s not a matter of “if” but “when,” when it comes to flooding in Calgary. The rivers had flooded before 2013 and they will again.

But “Calgarians should be reassured,” Bezanson said, by what officials have learned and the work that’s been done since 2013. He added the average citizen has also gotten better at responding to disaster situations.

“As a province, I think we’re more prepared – a lot of the initiatives go beyond just Calgary in terms of how the emergency management community is working together to be more prepared for the next event,” he said.

“Our province has been hit with a number of big disasters and the first and second-largest disasters in Canadian history happened in this province, so we’ve unfortunately developed a bit of local expertise.”

Information about the City of Calgary’s flood mitigation and resiliency plans, as well as information tips, useful links and other flood-related content can be found on the city’s website.

With files from Alannah Page

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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