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2014 Breaking News, Medium Newsroom winner

Alberta Floods

 

About the Project

On the morning of June 20, 2013, Albertans woke up to a miserable day, one of several spring storms that week with gloomy skies and non-stop, pounding rain. It quickly became apparent this deluge was different, soaking the province and melting snow in the Rocky Mountains, feeding a system of rivers that twists and turns across southern Alberta. Within hours, the dominos began to fall on the floods of 2013.

It became the costliest disaster in Canadian history and one of the biggest stories of the year. The flood caused an estimated $6 billion in damage. More than 100,000 people were forced from their homes; roughly 1,000 people still weren’t back by the end of the year. Five people lost their lives amid the chaos.

As emergency workers began to scramble into action that day, so did the Calgary Herald newsroom. Every Herald journalist – photographers, writers, editors, videographers, researchers and digital producers – soon became involved in telling the story. It wasn’t a simple task of dispatching journalists to the scene; the disaster zone spanned 55,000 square kilometres, from the mountain communities of Banff and Canmore to the foothills towns of Black Diamond, High River and Turner Valley. Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and dozens of other communities braced for the deluge. The disaster slammed Calgary and neighbouring Okotoks, Bragg Creek and the Siksika First Nation.

In all, 29 states of local emergency were declared and 28 emergency operation centres activated. In Calgary alone, 26 neighbourhoods were evacuated, as was the entire town of High River. That same morning, a sour gas leak in Turner Valley added to the bedlam, after trees and debris in the flooding Sheep River struck a pipeline. Each event carried the potential for destruction, mayhem and loss of life. Each one required journalists to chronicle a fluid situation that changed by the hour. The music critic, food writer and opinion columnist were soon pitching in, reporting from the pitch black of an evacuated inner-city neighbourhood surrounded by a surging river, staffing the city’s 24-hour emergency operations centre, and writing about small communities battling floodwater en masse.

This is a team submission, reflecting the work of an entire newsroom in an event that forced a half-dozen Herald journalists and their families from their own homes. It also reflects the work of that team to gather information and images, in person and online, from those affected in order to convey the depth and breadth of an unprecedented disaster.

Just after 10 a.m. on Thursday, June 20th, the City of Calgary officially declared a state of emergency, while the town of High River issued a “critical alert” and mandatory evacuation order a few minutes later. The Herald kick-started its coverage with a live blog, which pulled together all the news strands from reporters and photographers in the field, as well as editors, graphics artists and online journalists in the office along with contributions from our users. It continued non-stop for the next ten days.

The obstacles were daunting. The Trans-Canada Highway was washed away near Canmore, closing off several communities. Anticipating problems in often-flooded High River, editors dispatched four journalists to the community that morning. All four had to abandon vehicles in the river of water that swept through the town’s core, as flooding rose more rapidly than anyone expected. Even people in an initial evacuation centre were forced to leave as the Highwood River spilled its banks.

Throughout this breaking news event, communications problems mounted and reporters in High River had to trek to the town of Nanton to file reports from an evacuation centre; cell phone coverage was intermittent and in some cases, non-existent. In Calgary, bridges were closed across the swollen rivers, making it nearly impossible for some staff to get to work. Some Herald journalists spent close to three hours driving to work, while others biked through flooded streets, and some walked for up to two hours. One staff member slept on an office couch on June 21, allowing him to update the live blog for almost two full days with only a brief break.

The 24/7 live blog became a hub of dialogue for a community actively seeking the latest information, posing questions, sharing stories, photos, video and tweets about the emergency. The audience continued to swell as the disaster escalated. Overall page views on mobile and the website were almost 10 times more than normal traffic, while unique visitors to the site increased six-fold.

What this submission includes is the best of our live material – culled from 3800 blog posts – and some of the hundreds of stories, maps, interactives and images that appeared online and on our mobile site and apps.

Behind the uncertainty of an evolving disaster were tales of anguish and heroism, chaos and confusion. Information was difficult to obtain and reports were often contradictory, but our website and apps maintained accuracy, relentlessly chased the story and became the bedrock for Albertans to get solid facts in an uncertain time.