A community rallies together to overcome a flood and play host to the 101st Calgary Stampede.

by Elizabeth Henderson, CMM, CMP, M.E.Des | August 30, 2013 | (0)

At 4:26 a.m. on Thursday, June 20, 2013—14 days before the opening of the 101st Calgary Stampede (“Stampede 101”)—intense rainfall triggered high flow advisories west of the city. Later that same day, the Bow River, the major river that flows through the Canadian city, reached a flow rate more than five times normal; a second river, the Elbow, reached a flow rate 10 times normal. By 6:20 p.m., more than 12 Calgary communities were under mandatory evacuation orders, including those that contain and border Stampede Park. A state of emergency was declared.

When the floodwaters receded, Stampede Park held millions of gallons of water and was declared a disaster zone. The racetrack, infield and grandstand where the event-defining rodeo takes place were submerged under more than six feet of water. Many people in the community questioned whether the Stampede would be able to go ahead, but also, given that 100,000 residents were evacuated and many communities remained in a state of emergency, whether it should.

Social media came alive with breaking news, calls for help and offers of assistance. Someone tweeted a picture of the Stampede brand with the words, “Hell or High Water.” Instead of taking issue with copyright, Stampede officials adopted it as their unofficial mantra. On June 24, four days after the flood, Stampede President and Board Chairman Bob Thompson declared, “We will be hosting the ‘Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,’ come hell or high water,” and the race was on. The slogan went viral and became a rallying cry for the community. The Stampede created official T-shirts bearing the phrase (including a kid-friendly “Heck or High Water” version) with all proceeds going to the Red Cross Alberta Flood Fund. (As of press time, more than 150,000 T-shirts had been sold, collecting more than CDN$2.1 million.)

“Feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” says Kurt Kadatz, director of corporate communications for the Calgary Stampede. “It wasn’t a question of [choosing] the Stampede or flood relief; it was flood relief first. The Stampede was a good way for citizens to rally.”

That was only the beginning. The determination of the event inspired songs, such as “Hell or High Water” by Marc Martel, a Nashville-based, Canadian-born artist slated to perform at the Stampede with backup by The Young Canadians, vocalists from one of three arms of the event’s community investment program. (The song can be downloaded for free at calgarystampede.com/highwatersong). Companies held flood-relief fundraisers at their Stampede pancake breakfasts—a Calgary tradition. One corporate coalition co-opted another famous slogan, selling “Stay Calm and Stampede On” buttons, donating all proceeds to a homeless shelter devastated by the floods.

“The history of the Stampede is intertwined with the history of Calgary,” Kadatz says. “It is one of the defining elements of Calgary’s brand as a city. People understand the history of the city through the lens of the Stampede.”

For 10 days each July, Calgary is transformed with an influx of 100,000 visitors per day. From the time that American vaudeville performer and cowboy Guy Weadick convinced four Calgary businessmen to fund the first event in 1912, the Stampede has rolled annually. It didn’t miss a beat through World War I, the Great Depression or World War II.

The Stampede adds an estimated $340 million to the community annually, a factor that was considered when making the decision to go ahead. Thompson said in a news interview that the event would help the community generally and would specifically help small businesses such as hotels, restaurants and other tourism infrastructure that depend on the revenue from Stampede-related business.

On the grounds, most of the 63 venues used for the event were damaged. Regarding options for the Stampede, Thompson says the first step was to evaluate the state of the facilities to determine if they had the capacity to execute the event. The next step was “all hands on deck.” Over the next few days, non-stop, the grounds were drained, the racetrack and infield were rebuilt and a thick layer of mud was cleaned from the rest of the grounds. A further challenge manifested in that Calgary already had a labor shortage, and volunteers were prohibited in an official disaster zone. Enter the Americans: U.S.-based remediation experts flew in to assist.

“While the immediate effect was closures and cleanup impacted many businesses, Calgary was quickly on a path to recovery,” says Jenna McLeod, manager, marketing and communications, for the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre. “Calgary’s commitment and compassion run deep—the flood demonstrated our strength and resiliency as a city.”

Kadatz adds, “The key to recovery is having a plan, understanding the probable risk and matching that risk against the potential impact it would have on the event; this helps to prioritize the response. If you know your areas of susceptibility you can recover more quickly. We were lucky to have long-term employees who were intimate with every detail of the event and the venue.”
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