“Our first job was to connect with our agency partners and find out how everybody was doing and identify the immediate needs. What was needed changed over time from emergency response to recovery and rebuilding for both agencies and the community.” – Susan Brooke, Vice President Community Investment and Partnerships, United Way of Calgary and Area

In June 2013, Calgary faced one of the most devastating natural disasters in its history. The widespread destruction and displacement caused by the one-in-one-hundred-year flood created immense challenges for individuals and communities. Amidst this crisis, United Way of Calgary and Area worked to provide immediate relief and spearhead long-term recovery efforts. Looking back at that time, it becomes evident that the response to the 2013 floods had a lasting impact on the community’s resilience and preparedness.

United Way Volunteers during Mission Possible cleanup efforts, June 2013

Immediate response

Like many other organizations based in or around the flood zone, United Way staff stayed home due to the City of Calgary’s emergency order. While our office space in the Kanahoff Centre was unaffected, our computer servers all went down. Unlike the familiarity of today’s hybrid workplaces, taking immediate action meant meeting off-site to assess areas of need and discuss ways to support the impacted individuals, families, and communities.

Susan Brooke is the Vice President of Community Impact and Partnerships for United Way of Calgary and Area. In 2013, she served as a Community Strategist on the front lines of our response. She remembers how quickly the process got into motion.

“The morning after the flood, we met at a colleague’s house to strategize how we would communicate and coordinate our response. We knew we could make emergency funding available, so our first job was to connect with our agency partners and find out what were the immediate needs and how we could help and gather that information. We had to understand what was needed.”

United Way acted swiftly to establish the Emergency Recovery Fund (ERF) to assist social service agencies and affected community associations in addressing immediate recovery needs. The ERF was created through United Way’s emergency reserves and was fuelled by the overwhelming generosity of local corporations and Calgarians who stepped up to provide donations.

The process of getting support to those who needed it was efficient, with a quick turnaround time between application and disbursement. The funding process was streamlined so that the Turn-Around-Time (TAT) between receipt of the application and disbursement was 48 hours. Over six months, the ERF distributed approximately $1.44 million to 51 organizations.

United Way provided funding for essential services such as counselling and support for individuals housed at evacuation facilities and workshops to help affected families access financial services and benefits. The ERF covered many expenses, including staff overtime payments, hiring new flood recovery coordinators, cleaning and renovation costs, transportation for relocating vulnerable citizens, replacing agency appliances and furniture, and much more.

United Way volunteers lend a hand during High River clean-up efforts.

Lending a hand in High River

Access to the Emergency Recovery Fund went beyond the city limits, with support flowing to the Town of High River to hire flood recovery coordinators who assisted residents with accessing government-funded community support programs.

“High River was in big trouble,” recalls Susan Brooke. “And the work that we did in the community was focused around bringing local agencies together to provide a coordinated system of support to meet the immediate and long-term needs of the community.”

The United Way learning and engagement team organized a series of Day of Caring events where volunteers from organizations like Shell and PWC provided over 1,300 hours of service in preparing hope hampers for the High River community.

Beyond funding: United Way’s leadership role

United Way’s involvement extended beyond financial support. In July 2013, key stakeholders from government, businesses, community funders, and agencies were brought together by United Way to discuss the impact of the flood on the non-profit sector and pressing needs. In response to agency partners’ requests, United Way’s policy and research team developed the “Crisis to Resiliency” guide, offering valuable lessons and practices from comparable disasters worldwide. This guide proved instrumental in assisting social service organizations and providing timely and relevant services.

Staff members also participated in the Provincial Flood Recovery Task Force and The Calgary Foundation’s community recovery funding table. This collaboration helped identify emerging needs in flood-impacted communities and coordinate resource allocation effectively.

A view of Bowness flooding in June 2013.

United Way’s neighbourhood staff team in Bowness provided crucial support to the community association. They engaged residents in recovery support, managed donations, coordinated volunteers, and collaborated with social service organizations and funders to restore flood-damaged homes and provide essential services.

United Way’s current President and CEO, Karen Young, served as Director of Community and Neighbourhood Services for the City of Calgary, leading emergency social services efforts and community mobilization during the flood. She sees Bowness Community Centres’ support as a building block for the current United Way Community Hubs initiative.

“One standout memory was seeing community associations leading recovery efforts. Bowness Community Association did an excellent job of providing multi-faceted care and support, from helping with cleanup to gathering cards and messages for neighbours to providing warm and compassionate care throughout the neighbourhood. In the following years, the ‘neighbours helping neighbours’ mentality was one of the many inspirations for the Community Hubs initiative.”

Volunteers from PWC take part in a flood relief-focused Day of Caring in July 2013.

Supporting future emergency preparedness:

Recognizing the need for improved disaster preparedness and business continuity among social service organizations, community associations, and agencies, United Way and The City of Calgary’s Community and Neighbourhood Services initiated a series of consultations in 2014. The goal was to develop a community framework that would enhance the capacity of non-profit organizations to respond effectively to disasters and contribute to the recovery process.

These consultations, which involved key partners from various sectors, resulted in developing the framework titled Prepare for the Future, Learn from the Past. This framework aimed to support individual organizations and community associations in developing business continuity plans, strengthening service delivery, and fostering better coordination between non-profits and government agencies during and after crises.

These consultations and the resulting framework are a legacy of United Way’s pre- and post-flood efforts. Susan Brooke saw the framework serving its purpose in 2020 in business planning and agency resiliency throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That business planning and disaster readiness, both for organizations and individuals, is still in use and was dusted off for COVID. It served as a baseline to start moving forward.”

Lasting Legacy

The 2013 Calgary Flood left an indelible mark on the community.

As we reflect on the past ten years, it is evident that flood recovery efforts helped shape a stronger and more resilient Calgary. The 2013 flood response created a legacy that continues to benefit Calgary and area by providing critical support and fostering community collaboration. The lessons learned from the 2013 flood will undoubtedly guide future disaster response efforts, ensuring our community remains prepared and resilient in the face of adversity.