50 Stories Part 44: It’s A Disaster
Image: Riverfront Avenue in Calgary after the 2013 flood. Photo by Ryan Quan.
In 1970, the idea of a two-day concert with accompanying sex, drugs and rock and roll was considered enough of a pending disaster to cause the formation of the Drug Information Centre. In 2013, Calgary faced an actual disaster, with major flooding in Calgary, High River and surrounding communities.
More than 100,000 people were directly impacted with many losing their homes and some losing their lives. Distress Centre joined with service delivery partners in BC and Edmonton to make counselling, crisis lines, and 211 services available, so that even when Distress Centre building was evacuated for 24 hours, there was no interruption in service.
Joan Roy, the new ED at the time, remembers it well:
“It was my first big test. After 9/11 the city and others started to identify that we really needed to have plans in place in case of disaster. Because part of our 211 mandate is to provide disaster services, we had a plan, so when the flood came, we basically just pulled the plan off the shelf and used it. We learned a lot about what worked and didn’t work. The report that was done after the flood said that the DC was one of the best prepared agencies.”
''We learned a lot (during the flood) about what worked and didn’t work. The report that was done after the flood said that the DC was one of the best prepared agencies.'' - Joan Roy
2013 flood response
Paul Bartel, then Manager of 211 recalls:
“The weirdest part of it all was closing down the office and leaving on a Friday afternoon. At one point, Joan just looked at us and said ‘if they are closing down roads maybe we should not be here’. We made the decision to turn over the crisis lines to the support network in Edmonton, and 211 went to Vancouver.
“The next morning David Kirby (counsellor) and I both came in and began to get things back up and running. Fortunately, the building didn’t get any water in it. We made some phone calls, and once we knew we could get enough people back into the building to re-open, we put that plan into motion.
“Most of our work after that was with the mental health teams that responded, along with several other agencies. Our part was to be there as a place people could turn to for information, support, and updates on what was going on. The counsellors took turns being part of the mental health team.
“We were supporting 5 or 6 evacuee reception centres for 72 hours. We met several times with the Red Cross and arranged for their phone line to have an option to get connected with 211. In the middle of all the recovery efforts we expanded 211 to High River and had to learn very quickly about all the resources available in the community.”
Dean Soenen at Wood’s Homes talks about the collaborations that quickly evolved:
“Distress Centre took the lead. We got a call from Joan Roy saying we think we are going to lose our lines. We worked together the whole time through the flood. We got lucky, we were on standby, we actually had helicopters hovering over some of our buildings saying be prepared, but we never had to evacuate. Usually when something big happens in the city, the two of us are connected in some way.”
''Distress Centre took the lead. We got a call from Joan Roy saying we think we are going to lose our lines. We worked together the whole time through the flood. We got lucky, we were on standby, we actually had helicopters hovering over some of our buildings saying be prepared, but we never had to evacuate.'' - Dean Soenen, Wood's Homes
Jackie Sieppert, U of C Dean of Social Work and former Distress Centre Board Member, helped provide a community evacuation centre on campus:
“We learned lots of things were not quick enough or thorough enough. Often it looks fantastic on paper, great flow charts, but when someone shows up and they need medication and they have no ID of any kind, and they say they need it to survive, our paper documents fall apart pretty fast. I can remember a couple coming in with a toddler, and he did not have shoes. And so, the first question we asked DC is where can we get shoes?”
Fort McMurray fire response
The Emergency plan was tested again by the 2016 fires in Fort McMurray. Joan Roy reports:
“Because it was in Fort Mac we weren’t concerned for our staff and volunteers, it was much more around ‘what is needed’? In May of 2016, we were again asked, along with our partners at Edmonton’s 211, to be a contact point for those fleeing the wildfires.”
In May, 211 added online chat services and 35% of information calls became related to the fires. People who were having a hard time sleeping, having flash backs, or just need someone to talk to called, and extra staff were called in to manage the volume. Calls also came from people looking for information on how to help or where to give donations.
Jerilyn Dressler, who would be the next ED, remembers: “People leaving Fort McMurray on the plane had nothing, and the only information they got was to call 211 when they got off in Calgary.”
Help for refugees
Robyn Romano, then 211 Supervisor, speaks to an international crisis with repercussions for Distress Centre that started in 2015:
“The Syrian refugees coming to Calgary was not a typical disaster response, although we used much of the same planning. It was a longer-term impact on community supporting new immigrants and refugees coming into the country, and the other was supporting other agencies and donors. At the time, the immigrant serving sector organizations were getting inundated with calls from people in the community wanting to donate and help out. They just didn’t have a way to navigate or manage the offers as they were also trying to support the refugees themselves.
“211 helped play a role in coordinating those responses, as well as assisting the refugees who were phoning in with questions. Our main priority was coordinating the community response because our community always wants to give back, but it can be so hard to manage that kind of support.”
''211 helped play a role in coordinating those responses, as well as assisting the refugees who were phoning in with questions. Our main priority was coordinating the community response because our community always wants to give back, but it can be so hard to manage that kind of support.'' - Robyn Romano
Financial need was consistently the top 211 issue for the more than 1500 Syrian refugees who arrived, and those who continue to come to Calgary: utilities and rent, or connection to food banks so money can go to rent instead.
Following the move to new premises in 2020, and just before the coronavirus pandemic became the next disaster, Jerilyn noted:
“We collect the data now for the City and 211. In the event of a disaster there are 30 agencies who are seen as critical services that must stay open. We are one of them. We are working on business continuity as part of the recent move, and with the tech upgrades we will be able to forward all of the calls with a click of a button, because during the flood it was very complicated and took quite some time to forward our calls.”
Sandy Pound, former Board member, sums up the role of Distress Centre when disaster hits: “Disasters are when DC truly comes to the table and meets the needs of the community. We’ve had some terrible events happen, but it is actually really cool to watch the DC execute and do great work during those events.”
With COVID-19 as the latest world disaster, Distress Centre continues to help the community survive. The move to an updated building, enhanced technology, and many years of helping people cope with crisis once again serves them and Calgary well.