By Lilia Yumagulova, Editor, HazNet
As the Director of Resilience and Infrastructure Calgary, and the Deputy Chief Resilience Officer, Chris envisions the delivery of a long-term investment and value strategy for a resilient Calgary. Previous to her current role, Chris was the Chief of Staff in the City Manager’s Office and contributed solution based approaches to very dynamic and complex issues. After the 2013 Flood, Chris was the Director of Recovery Operations and she still continues to oversee ongoing flood recovery activities four years later. Resilience is a value system for Chris that guides her personal and professional paths.
On June 20th, 2013, Calgary experienced a ‘perfect storm’: intense rainfall and saturated ground conditions combined with the significantly sized melting snowpack in the mountains to flood the city via the Elbow and Bow Rivers. This caused significant flooding to about 15% of the geographical area of Calgary, including the downtown and approximately 26 communities. The event required the largest evacuation in Calgary’s history, caused significant property damage to homeowners and businesses and created about $400 million in public infrastructure damage.
As the Director of Recovery Operations at the time, Chris shares key lessons learned:
1. Know your risks and understand that you at some point you will need to recover. Take the time, before an event occurs, to understand your significant risks as an organization and as a community. Understand where those vulnerabilities are and start to talk about them with your stakeholders, and to discuss how you would respond and recover from a significant event.
At The City of Calgary, we understood that our community was at risk for significant flooding. We had done quite a bit of work to consider how we could respond should an event occur: we developed risk models and scenarios, we undertook training exercises and we identified the stakeholders who might be involved and the type of response and recovery that would be needed in the case of major flood. As we did that work, we began to understand that a flood event of this significance would cause enough damage that it would not be a rapid recovery from such an event. We started to think what type of recovery process would be needed. When the flood occurred, and as we responded, we already understood that we would need to support a long term recovery process.
We have a great team of people in our emergency management group that had spent the time to lay out the foundations of what a recovery process might include. An all hazards framework for recovery was developed based on the lessons learned from other events. This recovery framework helped us to identify that we would need leadership, that we would need to take on specific roles to support our community, that we would need to take on specific roles around infrastructure and that we would need major support and resources from internal services such as finance, communications and human resources to help us with that recovery. With our senior leadership team, we exercised an event such as a flood and how we would coordinate ourselves to respond to that level of an event. Recovery roles and responsibilities were defined and practiced.
2. Build relationships and have them in place before an event occurs. Build relationships with your partners before you have to call someone out of the blue and say “we need your help”. Use these relationships to identify your risks and vulnerabilities, and to talk about how you might work together under very different circumstances.
3. Ramp up fast, right away and start big. Bring in all of the people you think will need to be involved in the recovery work. Get together – and even though you’re under pressure to quickly recover from the event – take the time to put together a plan. It’s hard to do because most people want to move forward in operational mode and you really do need to talk to each other to say “What are our priorities?”. Our experience has been to put people first: the people in your community as well as the people in your organization.
4. Communicate in as many ways as possible. The biggest risk to your recovery progress is that you are not able to share information broadly with each other and with your community and in a fast enough way. Recovery demands timely actions. When the flood occurred, we accessed many different methods of communication to help with response: we used social media, traditional media channels and some visible leaders to help us communicate key messages. Social media had evolved into a tool that we as an organization understood how to intentionally use to help us communicate broadly with our community. We built on this foundation during the recovery work. We asked our council members and our mayor to help us communicate how recovery was progressing. Bring your information to the community as much as possible: on your website; in a written format, for example using reports and diagrams to help communicate the recovery process; and by meeting face-to-face with the community.
5. Expect anxiety and take care of the community and your city colleagues. Understand that recovery from any event is an emotional process for everyone, including the people who are responding and helping the community to recover from the event. That anxiety lasts over a long period of time because recovery is a long-term process. It requires a lot of personal resilience from the people trying to recover and from the people who are offering their help to support the community in its recovery.
Have the resources to support the community as well as the organization. We worked with other governments and stakeholders to bring support to our communities during our face to face meetings. This was facilitated through the relationships we had established before the event. We also maintained a conversation with our human resources team to better understand if our employees were increasing sickness and accident claims, for example, or increased calls to our employee family assistance program. We made it a leadership goal to keep a pulse-check on the wellbeing of our employees.
From an operational team perspective, as a leader, I was very conscientious about ensuring that the good people doing the recovery work were able to have down time for themselves. We made sure that the team stayed involved in physical activity during the course of the recovery. Inevitably, you are going to have people on your recovery team come and go. Supporting each other for the duration of the recovery program is important. We are still recovering as a community four years later, and we are very fortunate to have team members that have been supporting recovery since the day the event occurred. We have become more aware of the psycho-social impacts of significant events with each event we’ve experienced. We have more intentional awareness of staff wellness for future events. It is really important for organizations, especially a municipality, to pay attention to this factor both within the community and within your own organization.
6. When you’re building your recovery plan, take the time also to ask yourself ‘what do you want the story line to be one year from now?’ Our natural instinct is to think ‘it has been 3, 6, twelve months since the event’ and as a recovery team we plotted out when those timelines would occur. We established goals of what the recovery accomplishments would be for each period of time. As a team we tried to visualize what the news headlines could be at each of those milestones. We wanted the recovery story to be seen as positive, to be seen by our community that we were moving forward in recovery and progressing toward resilience. We envisioned those headlines and crystalized the goals we were working toward as part of our recovery plan.
7. Celebrate milestones. Building on point 6, once you have identified what those milestones are, take a moment to celebrate them. With the public’s help we understood what their priorities were and we tried to create time sensitive goals for those priorities. We had three pedestrian bridges over the Elbow River destroyed as a result of the flood. The community made it very clear to us that those pedestrian bridges were near and dear to them and they were critical for connecting community, and for pedestrian and cycling access to downtown. We worked with the community to really think through a few questions: What would building those bridges back better look like? How could they be more resilient in the future? How could those bridges be better prepared for a future flood event and how could they ensure that the community would stay connected during another flood event? Through a community engagement process, the community helped pick the design for the new flood resilient bridges, and those bridges were opened 18 months post-flood. When the pedestrian bridges were opened, we hosted a community celebration. People were invited to the opening, they could come and walk across the bridge with the Mayor, and a blessing was offered by one of our indigenous leaders. It was a true community celebration. Taking the time to acknowledge the recovery actions helps to establish that there is a forward momentum as a community.
8. Build back better. As you’re going through this recovery work, keep your eye on the future and consider opportunities to build back better and to be more resilient. It’s really the best time to build on the awareness of risk that the event has created. For example, some of our public building infrastructure had mechanical systems that traditionally would have been housed in the basement. During the recovery process, these systems were elevated to a second floor. We’ve used our learnings from the 2013 flood to really create a dialogue with the other levels of government about the risks of flooding in our city and to solicit support to help us with improved flood resilient infrastructure for future flood events. Specific examples include strengthening our reservoir and looking at some additional pathway and river hazard adaptation, supported by provincial and city funding. River bank erosion maintenance became critical to reducing future flood impacts. During our recovery work, we created an opportunity to build back better through a very creative, environmentally sensitive and flood resilient approach. A combination of natural materials, such as willow reeds that grow both horizontally and vertically, combined with large boulders of various sizes were layered to provide both a natural habitat for future wellness of the river, in addition to flood resiliency to future flood events. It was this creative approach that supports the health and wellness of our rivers as well as making them resilient to future flooding events.
Throughout this flood recovery process, the core guiding principle has always been: ‘How can we provide the best municipal service to our citizens?’ The first pillar of our five pillar recovery plan was people first. While those initial stages of recovery were in place we worked with our community to understand their needs. As recovery has prolonged over the past four years our focus has been on ensuring that our municipal infrastructure is recovered and ready to withstand a future shock. Our city’s resilience is a blend of understanding our citizen needs, and ensuring that we as a municipal government are able to provide the services needed by our citizens.