(**Top portion is my recounting of the 2013 flood in Calgary, AB. For practical information on preparedness, please skip to the first subhead below – or, for the super-quick and dirty version, read my Top Five Tips at the very end.)
When we went to bed in Calgary on Wednesday, June 19, it was pouring rain, but I don’t think anyone thought much of it. Sure, there might be some flooding – it’s happened before – but we knew what to expect even if that happened. I had our annual Solstice camping trip planned for the weekend and Neko and I were so excited to hit the road for this cherished annual tradition in our favourite spot.
But we awoke on Thursday to some serious news. Canmore, an hour west of Calgary, was practically washing away. Already, the Trans Canada highway there was closed due to flooding and washing out. There were mudslides all through Kananaskis Country and campgrounds – including the one we were headed for – were being evacuated.
Throughout the day the situation became more dire. There was an H2S (sour gas) leak in Turner Valley, near where we had been meant to camp. The town of High River evacuated completely, and soon it was under water. By the afternoon, evacuations in Calgary had begun.
Now, Calgary is not a place that gets evacuated. I’ve heard about some explosions over the years (industrial accidents) and other such random things, but they are few and far between. Tornadoes happen near us, but so far never here (it’s not out of the question, but it’s certainly not the norm). We get some pretty bad hail storms, especially in the northwest corner of the city and south of the city, and there have been some incidents with high winds, particularly downtown. And we get droughts. We don’t tend to see very serious blizzards here (by Canadian standards), wildfires aren’t generally a danger, even flooding has never been all that serious before now. Aside from the remote prospect of a terrorist attack during Stampede or something, even the serious preppers here feel quite safe (hell, I’ll admit that a lot of us stay in Calgary for these very reasons I’ve listed).
So when the evacuations started, many Calgarians scoffed – somewhat understandably. I, on the other hand, saw it this way: in Calgary, we don’t get evacuated. Therefore it follows that if the Mayor (our beloved Nenshi) is telling us to get out, we need to GTFO.
I won’t give a play by play of what followed over the next week, as it has been covered extensively in the news and on other blogs. Basically, it was beyond anything any of us could have imagined possible. Everyone in the city watched in shock and horror as the muddy waters rose far beyond our wildest nightmares, and we wondered what we would see when those waters eventually subsided. Then, when evacuees were allowed back into their homes and power began to be restored to evacuated and surrounding areas, we all rolled up our sleeves and began the hard work of cleaning up and rebuilding.
We were very lucky. Though near one evacuated area (one that was, thankfully, not very hard-hit), we were never in any danger of evacuation nor flooding. Our two favourite riverside parks were basically obliterated, which, to me, is tragic, and many of our friends lost a little bit, or a lot. Justan lost a week of work and I worked from home because I couldn’t get to my office. Later in the week, we chose to leave our home when a train bridge about two kilometers away collapsed, leaving six rail cars full of “petroleum product” (three of distillate used in the oil sands, one of glycol and one empty) dangling dangerously close to the river. But all told, we lost nothing material, nor any family members.
There were times during the week that we were basically isolated in what felt like our little island community, cut off on three sides by river and tied up roads. Our only way out was into the country. Other Calgarians reported feeling the same way, depending on where they were located. It was very surreal knowing what was happening in the rest of the city, seeing it on the news, on Twitter, on Facebook, seeing our friends’ photos showing their homes and neighbourhoods, and not being able to get out and see it for ourselves nor help, yet. It was almost more surreal walking into our neighbourhood grocery store and seeing full shelves and no people (though we still had access to three large grocery stores, the population that was contained within our area is quite low).
So what did we do? We talked to our neighbours. We went for walks in the rain (and prayed for it to stop). We had a bonfire.
The one thing that neighbours (and friends, via text and social media) asked me again and again was how they could be more prepared in case anything even remotely similar ever happened again. I’m fairly vocal about our family’s preparedness, and while it worries me that many of my friends joke that their “emergency plan” is simply to come to my house and live off of all my food and water and skills, I’d rather spread the word about prepping than try to hide the fact that I’m prepared. Plus – we’re Canadian. Through all of this, people in Calgary have been mostly polite, even humourous. When residents decided to rush out and buy all the bottled water just in case the water treatment plant went down, there were long line-ups and the shelves emptied, but shoppers mainly reported that people were polite and good-natured. The stories from around the city, throughout the State of Emergency, were of friends and neighbours and strangers helping one another – not looting, not rioting, not climbing over one another to provide for themselves. In fact, if anything, there were too many volunteers in many cases, too many homes and not enough evacuees to fill them, and many eager Calgarians chomping at the bit for ways they could help out.
So How Do I Prepare Already?!
I promised my friends that I would provide them with information on how to be prepared. This is written not for the doomsday prepper nor the survivalist, though if you follow these instructions and suggestions you’ll be more likely to survive. They are for the lazy, the overwhelmed, the busy, the more… er, shall we say, “moderate” (ie. those of you who DON’T think we’re due for a civilization collapse). I will say this: ANYTHING you do to be more prepared is worth the effort. If you feel drawn to do one particular thing first – be it working out, saving up, storing water, storing food or learning a new skill – do it. Read over this list and try to do a bit from each section, but don’t feel like you have to follow anyone else’s protocol. If there is one thing I have learned this week, it’s that every single thing I have stored is useful. I might not need it personally, but I can help out affected friends by sharing my supplies and tools with them. In most States of Emergency, there is a high likelihood of essential services like power and water being affected, as well as municipal services such as garbage collection. Taking action now to reduce your waste and be less reliant on municipal power and water supply WILL be helpful during a State of Emergency – take my word for it.
What to do first
There are tons of resources out there on emergency preparedness. Generally, you’ll see two extremes. At one end, you’ve got government recommendations to create a 72 hour emergency kit with food, water and supplies. This is a great place to start, though I urge you to keep your own unique needs in mind as you follow their instructions – for instance, do you have special medical needs? Are you breastfeeding or pregnant? Where do you live, what services do you rely on and what hazards are around you? At the other end, you’ve got survivalist guidelines. These are the ones I love, personally, because they’re thorough. However, if you’re new to this and just looking to coast through the next power outage comfortably, you’ll probably find them overwhelming and possibly even silly. My suggestion would be to check both, use your common sense, take everything with a grain of salt and then prioritize for yourself. I have included links to my favourite resources on both ends of the spectrum at the end of this section.
The very first thing you should do is try to visualize what you would like to prepare for. I’ll speak directly to Calgary here (and this is largely transferrable to most other major cities on the Canadian prairie), but please, if you live elsewhere, superimpose your own location onto what I’ve written. When I sit and think about preparing for, hopefully, any eventuality (except nuclear fallout. I’ve decided that if that happens, I’m just shooting myself like the mom in The Road.), I try to identify what could happen, and in which particular cases we would stay at home or get the heck out of dodge. Then from there I picture either what we would need to take with us, or what we would need at home. So in my planning, I have mainly prepared for blizzards, power outages (and the combination of the two), tornadoes, flooding and general societal collapse (okay that’s a whole other post and one that you might not be preparing for. Just, you know… full disclosure.). We are lucky in that we have a location outside the city which we can easily reach on a quarter tank of gas, that has food and all the tools we could need in the event of a longterm crisis. However, for many disasters, we would stay home – in a blizzard, we would, in fact, be forced to do so.
My recommendation as the next step you should take would be to either buy a couple flats of water or, if you have water jugs for camping, fill them and store them full instead of empty. Also, start to think about preparedness as part of your regular line of thinking. When you go to the grocery store, if you see a sale on a food that doesn’t require cooking (and that you like!), buy an extra box. If you’ve been wanting to learn to can or dry foods, maybe now is your time. Keep an eye out for tools and simple camping gear at yard sales. Any extra item that you have in your home is an extra bit of security. Other than that, I do recommend making copies of important documents. I printed a list with all our account numbers on it – bank accounts, credit cards, insurance policies and utility service provider account numbers – then photocopied our passports, drivers licences, birth certificates and marriage certificate. I gave one copy to my parents, who live in a different city than us, kept one copy in our office, and put the last copy somewhere else – I’m not telling you where. I can tell you that when we were worried we might be evacuated due to the train derailment, it was very reassuring to know that all of those numbers were gathered up in one place far away.
Next, I would make an emergency plan. This takes up a bit of time, but again, it’s very reassuring to have in place. It limits confusion and streamlines a tough process like evacuation. My emergency plan includes phone numbers for all family members as well as some neighbours, all contact information for my daughter’s childcare, phone numbers and addresses for my parents (choose a close friend, family member or someone else – whoever would be your point person outside your area), as well as the fastest and lowest-risk route out of the city from our house. I’ve also included phone numbers and email address for an out-of-country contact person. In other, larger scale emergencies such as 9-11 and the Japanese earthquake, I have heard that local circuits can get tied up and rather than attempting to call a number nearby, it can be helpful to have a backup point person far away. It’s crucial that family members (in this case, my parents) know this plan, though. Also in my emergency plan are instructions for shutting off water and gas, and the location of the electrical box and the floor drain. I printed two copies of this list and put one in the glove compartment and one in our house, then printed three copies in small font, done in three columns – when trimmed and folded, these fit perfectly into our wallets and the ID pocket in Neko’s backpack.
The last thing that I believe is very important is physical fitness and the ability to travel without a car. During this disaster, bikes gave many citizens mobility when traffic was tied up. People who have kept themselves in good physical condition were more able to help with demolition and cleanup, for days on end. If you are able, I highly recommend keeping fitness as a top priority, for so many reasons. I don’t mean trying to be skinny. I mean taking part in activities that keep you functionally fit – maintaining your cardiovascular fitness, especially through interval training; and focusing also on strength, whether that is through Crossfit, resistance training at home, lifting weights, or otherwise.
Of course there are all sorts of tools and items that would be great to have on hand. And there is no end to the lists out there that people have made based on their opinion of what you need. My favourite way to make my own list was to go through the “List of Lists” on the Survival Mom site (see links below). I also have a bunch of lists myself – if you’re a personal friend I’d be happy to sit down with you and go over them.
This is the very least you should be doing. My last word of advice is to start thinking like a prepper. You don’t have to go overboard. But say you’re at the grocery store and you notice toothbrushes on sale for 88 cents each. Why not buy four, or ten? Little actions like this add up (not to hoarding, hopefully) – whether it’s having extra items on hand when money is tight, being prepared for a longterm disaster, or simply having donations to contribute to others in need during an emergency situation, these extra items are good to have. Simple actions like keeping an emergency kit, some water and some snack bars in the car; or keeping a few days’ worth of extra food in the pantry bring you one step closer toward being comfortable in the event of an evacuation or emergency.
The Survival Mom (an endless source of great tips for families)
Ready Nutrition (general preparedness advice)
Get Prepared: the Government of Canada’s 72-Hour Preparedness Page
City of Calgary: 72-hour preparedness kit list
On research: I find social networking sites are best for keeping abreast of emergency situations. I generally hear about things on Facebook and then research them on Twitter. Be aware that Alberta also has an emergency broadcast system that is available on basically every radio station – but this means you have to have the radio on when the alert plays. Building community is another way to stay in the know. Connect yourself with someone who stays on top of things and ask them to contact you if they hear something. Once you know there is a situation unfolding, try Googling a plausible Twitter hashtag for the event, complete with the “#”. For instance, when I heard about the Vancouver riot, I Googled “#YVRRiot” (remember to use the airport code where applicable). Even if you’re not on Twitter, Googling a term like this with the hashtag will bring up any existing tweets, allowing you to view the tweets right on Twitter without an account. You’ll then see other hashtags being used, which you can then search. I usually find the top couple of hashtags and have a couple tabs open, one with each hashtag going. Then I refresh regularly. When the emergency is in your area, this is the absolute best way to get to-the-minute, on-the-ground reports of what’s happening.
On evacuating: Don’t be the douchebag who decides to stay. If the cops are telling you to evacuate, just get your stuff and go. If you’ve ever wanted to thank a first responder for everything they do, do so by showing them some respect and evacuating when they tell you to. Have a bag ready so this is easy to do.
My Top Five Tips in Case You Didn’t Want to Read All of That
- Buy a couple flats of water (they’re cheap!) or fill your camping jugs with tap water (now, not when the emergency actually happens.
- Keep your car’s gas gauge above the halfway mark.
- Get to know your neighbours.
- Learn how to follow unfolding current events on Twitter. Even if you don’t have a Twitter account.
- Keep at least a week’s worth of food in the pantry, and have more than one way to cook it (or include food that doesn’t need cooking).