By Jen Malzer, P.Eng. 2013-11-27 09:24:36
Article reprinted with permission from the Canadian District of the Institute of Transportation Engineers. "Come Hell or High Water" became the City of Calgary's collective motto, coined during the incredible flood in southern Alberta, Canada that took place on June 20, 2013. Unlike the flood of 1997, which was anticipated for weeks and resulted in little destruction within Winnipeg, no one saw this flood coming in a significant amount of time beforehand. That Thursday night my friends were in touch to see whether our softball game would be cancelled; it had been raining. Within 24 hours our downtown would be – it seemed – gone. With softball cancelled, I became, like many, glued to the television reports. A high-end development in Canmore was being devastated by flooding. The City of Calgary, a few hours down river from Canmore, fortunately had organized a huge response; truck load after truck load delivered berms along the river in the community of Mission. The efforts were amazing, and I was proud to see this coordinated response from my workplace. Of course the berms were no match for the flooding to come, but the efforts to put them there seemed to set the pace: Calgary was in for something massive, and we would all be needed to help. Friday morning I reported in at Spring Gardens Transit Facility and switched from 20-year planning to helping my colleagues deliver as much transit service as we could. City Hall, my normal workplace, would shortly be evacuated, and the City's computer network and phone system (located in the basement of City Hall) would be affected. Fortunately for Calgary, most of our transit staff are accustomed to operating in the day-to-day as garages had already been evacuated and the fleet moved to higher elevation. In the coming days, detours were invented and re-invented according to road closures. We communicated with our customers mostly on platforms and with posters. We communicated with our colleagues throughout the transportation department. We worked with our roads business unit to create transit priority measures and open roads exclusively for transit service. The team did this for long hours and with cold sandwiches (often interspersed with pizza and Swiss Chalet). Our light rail transit (LRT) system lost its downtown backbone as well as a link just south of downtown. This link, which carries about 110,000 passengers each weekday, would reopen in ten days. Along with the LRT impacts, Calgary's road network was severely impacted – the Bow River lapped the shoulder of Deerfoot Trail (our major north/south corridor) and many of our river crossings were closed. In total, 22 structures were closed and 28 were impacted. Mayor Nenshi asked Calgary to stay out of the downtown and work from home, and approximately 100,000 Calgarians were evacuated. Actions Taken by the Calgary Transportation Department Writing this article in early October 2013, about 100 days after the flood, coincided with my attendance at the Calgary Flames's home opener. Our stadium is in the heart of the destruction zone, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, other than the hopeless number of Canucks hockey fans. That said, the Bow River is remarkably different; dinosaur bones have been unearthed, and there is still household cleanup and infrastructure reconstruction that will continue for some time to come. However, for the most part, the city feels back to normal. So, how did we do it? I asked a few of my colleagues to contribute to help do justice to this story. We really only cover the efforts of the transportation department, but the stories of our citizens and City Council are just as amazing! It was really everyone's combined effort that have allowed Calgary to reopen. Ryan Jestin is our director of roads, and fortunately for us he previously worked on the military side helping during Winnipeg's flood and Québec's ice storms. Though we had fewer military staff (500 to Winnipeg's 10,000) helping us, they played a key role – more on that later. According to Ryan, we actually did see the flood coming. Thursday morning was a terrible commute (equivalent to a bad snowstorm) with lots of rain causing major signal outages resulting in our traffic management center being activated. The City of Calgary's Emergency Operations Center was also activated. Early Thursday morning, Ryan and about 50 others convened there and stayed for the next couple of weeks. The three priorities that day were: try to anticipate the magnitude of the flood, decide on any evacuations, and manage traffic. By the end of the workday, a call was made to build berms, and City staff started knocking on doors asking residents to evacuate their homes. The approach was to leave as many Calgarians in their homes as possible. The berms, however, had to be positioned leaving enough access should more residents need to leave if the flood was bigger than expected, which it ultimately was. One odd note was the wind coming from the east (unusual for us) slowing our river. The evacuees' first muster point was the Stampede Grounds, and evacuees were finally gathered at a shopping center further south. To help emergency staff, Xs were taped on homes that were known to be vacated. The river finally crested overnight on Friday. After this point, the damage was done and rebuilding could start. Sadly one person died, but the stories of rescues and the professionalism of our police, fire, and administration were the exclusive focus of the news. Mayor Nenshi was about halfway into his famous shift. He didn't sleep for a long time and would become the face of our rebuild. Flooded roads were left coated with cement-like debris. City equipment was slowly able to clear this material, and with the help of military staff, roads were determined safe or unsafe and the process of getting Calgarians home began. Getting Calgarians home quickly allowed residents to assess damage and start reclamation with the help of thousands of volunteers. The City of Calgary trusted residents would not try to return home, so instead focused on getting information out regarding safety and contamination. The military also helped secure substation 32 by deploying specialized staff and subaqueous equipment. The substation became an island as the Bow River shifted its course, and its protection meant many more Calgarians avoided evacuation. Communication was one of our biggest challenges. With our servers damaged in the flood, updating information on evacuated areas and road closures became extremely difficult. Maps were created on Google to describe the areas of impact. Transit Planning and Roads would meet daily via teleconference for updates on road closures and possibilities for transit priority. Transit Planning would then review the system, route-by-route, to determine which routes would be unimpaired, cancelled, or rerouted. Since our variable message signs on LRT platforms could not be re-messaged, we created posters and web updates. Turn-by-turn descriptions of the new routes would be created for our operators each day just as schedules would be invented every day. Being that I was nearly 9 months pregnant at the time, one activity I was permitted to help with was driving between LRT stations while my colleagues hopped out and installed posters describing the network of the day. I wouldn't be allowed to do this for the graveyard shifts, but they did, day-after-day. I think anyone you meet from Calgary will tell you just how grateful they are to all who helped. I myself will always remember how my team took care of me. One of the most important and incredible repairs was the reopening of the South LRT line, led by Craig Harper, our manager of facilities at Calgary Transit. The pictures say it all! Somehow we planners of the 1980s designed our LRT to travel under a cemetery and then immediately over a river and then immediately back into two downtown tunnels. In ten days, Craig's crew would drain the tunnels of water, trout, and mud and open the line once again. This repair ($8.2 M) involved between 150 and 300 staff on site, 24-hours a day. Just shows that to us planners , nothing is too challenging! Craig explains the accomplishment is attributed to the ownership our staff have for the railway and making it available to Calgarians. A final defining moment for Calgary was the announcement that the 2013 Calgary Stampede would go on as scheduled. This defiance (the birth of "Come Hell or High Water") really set everyone's expectations for success and gave us a collective deadline: July 5. Mayor Nenshi then organized the opening of the downtown for Canada Day, a smaller celebration to prove we were on our way. In the end, the South LRT was reopened two days before the Stampede: a huge win for everyone. There is nothing like watching overlapping efforts: volunteering on the weekend, we saw residents dispatching residents to clean out basements; Roads pouring new sidewalks; bylaw distributing information; and collecting basement debris… all on the street. That could just not happen in the everyday; maybe now it can? Gord Stewart, Calgary's recovery director, estimates all remaining repairs are in the order of $0.5 billion. Most of the transportation fixes that remain (about $40 M) are to rebuild and reconnect our pathway network. This opportunity will allow us to rebuild many of our river crossings to current accessibility standards, and once completed will mean an improved standard. In some places, like Inglewood, where the river shifted by more than 60 meters, the network may have to be altered. Like everyone I have spoken with for this story, Gord agrees that the flood has helped City and transportation staff break down silos and respond with more flexibility, speed, and coordination. For a few weeks, big-city Calgary felt more like the small prairie town that long-time Calgarians fear is gone. I think everyone here was proud to call Calgary home. Jen Malzer, P.Eng. is a senior transit planner with the City of Calgary, Alberta, Canada and sessional lecturer with the University of Calgary. Jen is a professional engineer and a graduate of the University of Manitoba (U of M) with a master of science degree specializing in transportation and urban planning. She has held several positions serving ITE, from acting as the inaugural president of the U of M student chapter and serving as president of the Southern Alberta Section in 2010, to her current role as vice president of the Canadian District. Jen loves to ski and travel with her husband, Rob, and is a new mom to a 3-month-old baby, Scott. She is a member of ITE.
Published by ITE Journal. View All Articles.