For 11 months of the year, Cougar Creek in Canmore is a long, wide and deep rocky ditch, completely devoid of water. Most years during Spring runoff, the creek flows fast but doesn't approach the banks. The worst that usually happens is that debris collects by the tracks below the 1A highway and town dredgers clean it out so the water can get through the culverts. It's a common spring sight.
In the spring of 2012, however, Canmore residents watched as both sides of Cougar Creek were severely damaged. Runoff and rain eroded the banks, destroyed pathways and rendered a large section of this very popular park unsafe to use. The Town of Canmore came up with a plan to repair the creek, a massive project requiring months of reinforcing and restructuring the banks, using heavy machinery and many man hours to not only restore Cougar Creek, but make it better than it was, just in case this sort of flooding ever happened again. The repairs were almost finished.
When the rain started this past Wednesday and the creek started flowing, suddenly we weren't so sure the it would be enough. That evening, I went to the creek to take some pictures. The banks looked solid, the water rushing by, and it all seemed contained. Social media was abuzz with many saying things like, "hope all that hard work holds," and "now we see if the improvements work."
Thursday morning, I woke at 5:00 AM as I usually do and a quick check of Facebook revealed that Canmore was under a state of emergency.
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Living on the east side of Cougar Creek, close enough to walk there in five minutes, but far enough away that I wouldn't ever consider it a threat, the news that we might have to evacuate our townhouse condo seemed ridiculous.
Over the course of a few hours, the rumour mill was flowing as fast and furious as the creek itself. The evacuation centres on our side of the creek were on either end of our street, the same distance from the creek as our home, so why should we evacuate? Surely the water couldn't get this far. A quick walk to the nearest evacuation centre and one of the volunteers mentioned the word, "mudslide."
I hadn't thought of that.
My wife and I started packing. With all of the roads around us closed, where could they send us, anyway? The word came that they were going to bus us out. Could we take our cat? One person said Yes, the next said No. Were we under mandatory evacuation or not? One person said Yes, the next said No. Could we take our own cars? The answer from everyone on that score was No. There was only one lane left connecting our neighbourhoods to the rest of town and it went right over a bridge that they were trying desperately to save. Emergency, evacuation, and construction vehicles were being allowed through. Only those, no exceptions.
And still we waited. Ready to go if we had to, but not yet committed to it. Were we being foolish to stay? Were we really those people we see on the news in a disaster that needed to be rescued from their roof because they didn't leave when they were told to? Were we just being paranoid by leaving? With conflicting information, surely they could be wrong. We had 60 litres of emergency water, plenty of food, and were ready to handle it, even if we lost all services.
Finally, with a brief break in the rain, we found ourselves standing outside talking with neighbours, little clusters of others doing the same thing, asking each other the same questions. Then the firefighters showed up and our decision was made for us. Evacuate.
We quickly checked the house, made sure the valuables were up high, grabbed two bags each and the cat in a carrier. At this point, we weren't asking if we could take our pet, we were just taking her. Down the street to the evacuation centre where we waited to board the buses with so many other people. It seemed that every second person was bringing along their cat or dog as well. All were welcomed.
We boarded the bus and found ourselves being shuttled to the high school on the other side of town. Having already made arrangements to stay with generous friends, we found out many others had done the same. While the logistics of getting there with our gear was a challenge, we eventually found ourselves in the warmth and relief of a welcoming home. The only thing left to do was wait.
I'm a pretty cynical person, a fault I am well aware of. I often have a hard time seeing the good in people, even though I know should give folks the benefit of the doubt more often. This crisis is not yet over, but so far, I feel a great pride in how this community has weathered the storm. Literally.
People were frightened, upset, angry, frustrated and unsure of what was coming next. Some were losing their homes, others were worried theirs was next. One of the most beautiful parts of Canmore was being destroyed before our eyes and the flow of information was changing minute to minute. I saw a lot of people holding back tears.
And yet, through it all, people kept offering each other help.
If they weren't saying it out loud, they were just helping without asking. Taking people into their homes, giving people rides who weren't allowed to evacuate with their own vehicles, and offering any and all assistance they could. Everyone proving to each other that the best way to combat our own feelings of helplessness is to offer help to those feeling the same thing.
I was struck by the quiet strength of the woman who corralled our group onto the bus. She lives in our neighbourhood. She'd been up and working since 4AM and hadn't had a chance to go back to her own home to pack up. And yet, through her exhaustion, she was trying to keep everyone else's spirits up.
The police, firefighters, town employees, highway crews, and every other person who by virtue of their job or skills working to save roads, bridges, and keep the power on. We often take their efforts for granted and forget that they too are our neighbours, dealing with the same fears of losing their own homes as they try to save ours.
I ran into one neighbour downtown on the street today, he and his family taken in by friends as well. We were discussing all of these great stories of people stepping up to help and volunteering their time. He said, "That's what a small town should be."
It is rare to realize it when you're living through a historical event, but people are already calling this The Great Canmore Flood. It will be the benchmark that all future weather events in this area will be measured against, one we hope to never experience again. We will all have our individual stories of how we rode it out. But the best stories, the ones that will define the flood, this town, and this community will be the ones we tell about how we answered the challenge, by quietly asking our neighbours, "How can I help?"