CALGARY – Alberta’s largest city was swamped Friday by floodwaters that submerged much of the lower bowl of the Saddledome hockey arena, displaced tens of thousands of people and forced the evacuation of the downtown core.
Mounties reported up to four people in flooded areas south of the city may have died.
“Get away from the river now!” a Calgary police officer in a helicopter bellowed to residents in the low-lying Calgary neighbourhood of Sunnyside as they surveyed torrents of water that invaded their homes and sent everything from garbage cans to cars floating away.
Communities throughout southern Alberta continued to fight a watery onslaught that began with torrential rains Wednesday night.
From Canmore and Banff in the mountain parks through to Calgary and points east, overflowing rivers continued to wash out roads and bridges, inundate homes and turn streets into dirt-brown tributaries thick with smashed trees and furniture.
About 250 mm of rain has fallen into the flood zone, the Bow River basin, and another 50 mm was expected Friday and 20 mm more on Saturday.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew in from Ottawa and was on his way to tour the hardest-hit areas with Premier Alison Redford.
Redford said Harper has already promised she’ll have Ottawa’s full support for rescue and recovery efforts as the province struggles to deal with the deluge.
Calgary was dealing with a double whammy of overflowing water from two rivers that run through the city and converge downtown.
An estimated 75,000 residents in 25 neighbourhoods along the rivers had already been ordered out of their homes and, early Friday afternoon, that order was extended to the entire downtown.
Up to 350,000 people work every day in the downtown, but only a small fraction of them were there Friday. Office towers were ordered closed before the high water took hold.
City officials confirmed water had swamped the interior of the Saddledome, home to the NHL’s Calgary Flames.
“We have reports that — yes — it is up to the 10th row in the Saddledome and … I think that really paints a very clear picture of what kinds of volumes of water we are dealing with,” said Trevor Daroux, the city’s deputy police chief.
The Calgary Flames said they didn’t have any immediate information on possible damage to their property.
Water turned the nearby Stampede grounds into a muddy lake, lapping at the roofs of the chuckwagon barns. Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the city still hopes to be ready for the world-famous Calgary Stampede fair, which begins in two weeks.
In communities along the rivers, residents were left to wander and wade through streets waist-deep in water.
“In all the years I’ve been down here, I’ve never seen the water this high,” said Sunnyside resident John Doherty.
“I’ve got two antique pianos in the garage that I was going to rebuild and they’re probably under water,” he said. “We’re shell-shocked.”
About 1,500 evacuees were in emergency shelters, while the rest found shelter with family or friends, said Nenshi.
The flood was forcing emergency plans at the Calgary Zoo, which is situated on an island near where the Elbow and Bow rivers meet. Lions and tigers and other exotic carnivores were being prepared for transfer, if necessary, to prisoner holding cells at the courthouse.
Schools and court trials were cancelled. Transit service in the core was not running. Traffic lights were out. Power and gas were shut off to affected areas, but some homes not in the water zone also lost utilities due to the way the system is set up.
There were long lineups and a run on bottled water at city grocery stores, even though the city has not issued a boil water order.
Nenshi said the flood situation was under control as much as it could be.
He explained that water levels on the Elbow River had crested and were slowly going down.
He suggested that levels on the Bow River — which, in Nenshi’s words, looked like an ocean — would remain steady for the rest of Friday as long as conditions didn’t change.
More than a dozen towns declared states of emergency.
Entire communities, including High River and Bragg Creek, near Calgary were under mandatory evacuation orders. The water washed out roads and bridges and flooded underpasses. Trains were running over bridge decks just inches above the water line.
It was in the High River area were two men were seen floating lifeless in the Highwood River on Thursday, police said, but no bodies had been found as of Friday afternoon.
They also said an area woman who was swept away with her camper had not be located.
And it wasn’t clear whether a man who was seen falling out of a canoe was able to climb back in.
High River is one of the hardest-hit areas. It is estimated half the people experienced flooding in their homes. In some houses, water was halfway up the front door.
Military helicopters plucked about 30 residents off rooftops. Others were rescued by boat. Some swam for their lives from stranded cars, while still more were ferried to safety in large dump trucks, front-end loaders and combines.
Phone service was cut off and cellphone coverage was spotty.
A spokesperson for federal Defence Minister Peter MacKay said hundreds of soldiers were being deployed to the flood zone.
High River resident Danielle Smith, leader of Alberta’s Opposition Wildrose party, posted on Facebook that she spent much of Thursday sandbagging at the hospital as floods swamped the town.
“Rescued by some guys operating a manure spreader at about 7 p.m. We spent two hours picking up people from their homes. It was wild and frightening,” she wrote.
Farther west, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, pictures from the mountain town of Canmore depicted a raging creek-turned-river flooding streets and ripping up house foundations.
A spokeswoman for the town, where hundreds were forced from their homes, said Cougar Creek had changed its course several times and was heading to a new neighbourhood.
“There’s a lot of debris in the creek and if the debris gets backed up and piles up … then the creek re-routes itself very quickly around that debris,” said Sally Caudill.
Canmore residents had nowhere to go. Floods, mud, broken trees and other debris have closed off the Trans-Canada Highway near the town.
Some travel was possible, however, between Canmore and Banff and arrangements were being made for a bus to shuttle people between the two.
Redford, speaking to reporters in Calgary, called the flooding “an absolutely tragic situation.” She promised the province will help flood victims put their lives back together and provide financial aid to communities that need to rebuild.
Redford warned that communities downstream of Calgary were yet to feel the full force of the floodwaters.
In Lethbridge, officials said they expect rising waters to soon overwhelm bridge crossings.
Medicine Hat in the province’s southeast declared a state of emergency. Officials expect the South Saskatchewan River to crest on Saturday.