Tuesday, 19 August 2014

My brother in law needs help

It's painfully obvious I don't post here often. Okay, it's ridiculously obvious. However, the time has come when I feel it necessary to make another post.

My brother in law is having difficulties in the wake of the recent death of his wife. I explain more at the gofundme page I set up to raise money for him (see the link below). If you could spare the time, a dime, or just the link itself, we would be eternally grateful.

Thanks to you all, my appreciation knows no bounds.



Thursday, 27 June 2013

Thursday, June 20, 2013

We woke up at our usual time. It can be pretty light out at six a.m. this time of year, but on this particular day it was gloomy, which was to be expected considering the heavy rains that had been falling since the day before and had yet to let up. I went through my normal routine of making a tea and starting up my computer so that I could go online and see what was what with the world before getting ready for work.

My first clue that something was not right came when I heard a helicopter coming in for a landing just beyond the fence that separates my neighbourhood from the Trans Canada Highway at the east end of Canmore. We live across the highway from a commercial helipad so we are used to hearing helicopters, but this was louder than usual, much louder. I looked out the window and saw it coming down so close that it must have been landing on the westbound lanes of the highway itself.

There were a few people out in the street, some talking while huddled under umbrellas and others heading either towards or away from the corner where Grotto Road turns right and then runs uphill parallel to the east bank of Cougar Creek, which is approximately four hundred and twenty-five feet (or one hundred and thirty metres) from our house.

When the phone rang, I nearly jumped out of my skin. My wife Sue answered it and after a short conversation, told me it was her friend who lived by the creek. She had been evacuated a few hours ago and was now in Banff. Not being one to sit and wait quietly for anything, Sue got dressed and went out to see what was going on. When she came back a few minutes later, she said, simply: “This is bad.”

Cougar Creek had begun to spill over its banks.

To know just how terrifying this was to us, you would have to have lived here for a while. Cougar Creek is probably deep enough in most of the section that runs from above the Elk Run Bridge down to the Trans Canada Highway that you could plunk my one storey house in the middle of it and the peak of the roof would probably not be above the top of the banks. As for its width, the pedestrian bridge over the creek is about one hundred and twenty feet long, or just under forty metres. In any average year, the creek is dry as a bone except during heavy rains or during the spring runoff as the snowpack in the mountains melts and comes down from Cougar Canyon. When either of these occur, a stream runs down the middle of the creek that's generally small enough that many people who want to get from one side to the other simply climb down into the creek and find a spot where they can jump over it rather than walk all the way up to one of the bridges. Which means, despite having run strong enough in the past to erode the banks and cause significant damage to the walking paths lining it, it has never, as far as I had known as of that morning, ever come close to rising high enough to spill over it's banks.

It didn't take long for Sue to convince me that we should start packing some things just in case. Actually, she didn't say 'just in case', she flat out said “We're going to be evacuated too, I know it.”

When the knock came on the door around 8 a.m., we were as ready as we could be. We were instructed to go to a public works facility a few blocks away, near the Canmore RCMP detachment, so we loaded our car with our suitcases and our two cats Casey and Finnigan in their carriers and drove over to the facility, which had a main building with some offices and three large vehicle bays in a garage. Town employees had set up some tables and chairs in one of the three bays. We were among the earliest to arrive, but before long, it started to fill up with individuals, couples like us, and entire families with kids and pets in tow, including some friends from our street who came and sat with us.

A woman in an orange vest told us where to find the washrooms and so on. I called my boss and told him what was happening and he graciously offered to have us come to his home if we could get across the creek. Not long after we had arrived, we were told that if we wanted, we would be allowed to drive across Elk Run Bridge, the only remaining way over the creek, and go to a better equipped evacuation centre in the main part of town. If the bridge were to fail, we would be completely cut off. We decided to go and trundled the boys back into the car and set off. Unfortunately, when we got to the bridge, we were turned back and had to return to the public works building.

And so the waiting began. The woman in the vest told us we might be there for a while, explained where the limited facilities were, and that the deli just down the street was still open if we wanted to get some food. Sue has dietary issues that make it imperative she knows every ingredient in the food she eats, so I headed over there to get something for myself so that what little food we had brought with us would be all hers.

At this point, we really had no idea just how bad it was getting until our friends showed us a video on their smartphone. It is now well known, showing the rear of one of the houses that backed onto the creek on our side, their side fence hanging in mid air, the land that had once been their back yard gone.

I was stunned. This was no ordinary event, this was a full on natural disaster. Word started spreading around that those in the know thought if one of the houses on the creek went in, part of the raging torrent chewing away at the banks of Cougar Creek could divert right into our neighbourhood with its hundreds of homes.

I have never felt such a sense of overpowering fear and helplessness. There was nothing we could do but sit there staring at the tiny screen waiting to see if everything we owned would be swept away.

Then the power went out.

To everyone's credit, the room remained calm. I held Sue's hand as we huddled over our boys' carriers and tried to comfort them. After about a half an hour – I had to check afterward because it seemed like half a day – the power came back on. The woman who had been briefing us soon came back and told us there were porta-potties being set up outside to ease the pressure on the two washrooms meant for a dozen or so people, not the hundred or more that now crowded the truck bay, offices and other small rooms in the facility. She looked frazzled, but in control. I couldn't help wondering how we must have looked to her.

The waiting dragged on with no news until she came back and told us they had managed to arrange some buses to get us into the main part of town and the far superior facilities set up at Elevation Place and the high school. As I noted above, the only way to get to town was over the Elk Run Bridge where we had been turned back only hours before because it had been deemed too dangerous. But our choices were simple: stay where we were with its extremely limited resources and hope that the bridge held until the crisis was over, knowing full well that if it did go down we would be completely cut off from help except by helicopter; or get on the buses and hope to hell we made it across before the bridge failed. As far as I could tell, everyone who had been holed up in that public works facility got on the buses.

After stowing our belongings in the compartments slung low on the sides of the school bus those with pets had been assigned to, we climbed on board with our boys in their carriers. It was jammed full of people, so we ended up having to stand in the aisles. Absurdly I thought about rules governing passenger loads and standing in a moving school bus and had to stifle a laugh. At this point nobody gave a flying fig about such things, of course. We just piled in and held on. Sue had been ahead of me with Finnigan in the smaller of our two carriers and by the time I got on, there were a few people between us in the aisle. No matter, we were aboard. Casey's carrier was too wide to fit between the seats, so I held him up as high as I could so that I wouldn't bonk anyone in the head. A lady next to me had two carriers of her own stacked beside her and when she saw me struggling with Casey, she told me to go ahead and put him up on top of hers. Now we had a stack of three terrified cats on the seat beside her next to the window, with me leaning over her to try and hold them steady. As it turned out, she also had a dog between her feet.

The bus began to move and we all held on. It only took a few minutes to get up to the Elk Run Bridge where the scene was even worse than the last time we'd been up that morning. Sludgy water from the creek was pounding against the north side of the bridge, some of it coming onto the roadbed. There were backhoes and other heavy equipment, some right in the torrent, digging away at all the rock and sediment that kept piling up against the bridge and threatening to plug the underpass. If that happened, all that water and rock and muck would have nowhere to go but up and over into the neighbourhood. This wasn't just bad, as Sue had said hours before, this was a nightmare.

We had to wait a minute or two, then we were waved through. As we slowly rolled across, there were repeated gasps of shock up and down the length of the bus as the full extent of what was happening to our beautiful mountain home was revealed. The east bank of the creek had been washed away right up to the backs of the houses on that side. Rear decks – those that were still there – hung out over nothingness at odd angles. Some foundations were clearly visible, right to the bottom, as though someone had taken a brush and scrubbed all the dirt off them. It was obvious that if this kept up much longer, some houses could very well fall into the creek. Later on, Sue told me that as we went by, one worker who was standing in the muck digging at it with a shovel took a moment to wave at us as we went by.

When we reached the other side, everyone on board let out a cheer. I felt an immense sense of relief. One hurdle had been cleared: we could no longer get trapped on the east side of the creek. But the elation was short lived, of course. We still had no idea if our house was okay or not. As soon as the bus let us off at Elevation Place, I called my boss to let him know we had arrived and he was there in minutes. We loaded our belongings and the boys into his truck and we were off to the hotel where a room was being held for us.

After loading Casey and Finnigan and our belongings into the room, I closed the door and we started to get settled in. It wasn't long before the tears came and we held each other for a long while before either of us could bear to let go. We were safe, and thanks to my boss we had a roof over our heads, but there was still a long way to go. And so the second round of waiting began.

There's not much to tell about the next two days that most people affected by the flood don't already know. The creek continued to rage and towns and cities downstream started to prepare. We kept our eyes glued to the TV, ears to the radio, and borrowed a laptop computer from work so that we could get on the Internet. I have sleep apnea and had forgotten my cpap machine, so when sleep did come it was fitful at best. Sue hardly slept at all. Casey and Finnigan, for their part, adjusted remarkably well to their new circumstances. After some tentative exploring they set about finding the best spots in which to curl up and have a bath. They'll always be our brave little boys. I made a couple of trips on foot over to the grocery store to get some food and bottled water and came back soaked to the skin.

Finally the rain and then the water level in the creek began to subside. The immediate danger had passed, but was our home still there? We had no idea until Friday evening when a friend told us about a video taken only a few hours before, showing our neighbourhood from the air. When I saw our home, saw that the creek had not come into our street, saw that our house and everything we had worked for over the past quarter century had not been washed away … that's when I finally lost it.

We were allowed to go back home the following afternoon, Saturday, June 22, 2013. As it had appeared in the video, our home and those of most of our neighbours were unharmed. The only damage we had, if you could call it that, was a muffin we'd left on the kitchen counter that had a few spots of mould growing on it. For me it punctuated just how close we had come to losing everything we had, and how incredibly fortunate we were to be able to basically resume our lives. Though that's not strictly true. Our lives will never be the same.

Before this happened, I thought I had the capacity to empathize with victims of natural disasters. Now I am fully aware it is impossible for someone to know what it is like unless you experience it yourself. Even though we are back home safe and sound with all our property intact, every cloud in the sky now evokes a jolt of anxiety and every drop of rain seems to sting when it hits exposed skin. Even the mountains themselves are no longer the same. Where before their closeness seemed comforting, now they loom over us with hidden menace, the snow still at their tops no longer an image of beauty but fuel for future danger. We feel disconnected, as though we are characters in a science fiction novel who have stepped through a portal into another universe that looks like the one we were born into, but is subtly different, more malevolent.

To those who toiled tirelessly in the creek to save our only route of escape and our homes, you have our deepest gratitude, you are heroes in every sense of the word. Our hearts go out to those who live along the creek and have suffered the fate we so feared would befall us. Many homes have been damaged beyond repair, of that I am sure. The creekside is changed forever, and this change will be a constant reminder to all who lived through the flood of 2013.