Risk Management

Calgary Underwater: How “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” Survived Severe Flooding

Organizers of the 101st Calgary Stampede had to deal with catastrophic flooding just days before their event.

On June 20–21, record heavy rainfall caused the Bow and Elbow rivers surrounding Calgary, the largest city in the province of Alberta, Canada, to spill over their banks. Catastrophic flooding forced the evacuation of more than 75,000 residents — the biggest evacuation order in the city’s history. Calgary’s downtown core, where 350,000 people work, was among the areas evacuated during the worst flooding the province had ever experienced.

For organizers of the 101st Calgary Stampede — the 10-day rodeo, exhibition, and festival held every July, which bills itself as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” — the flood couldn’t have come at a worse time. Annually attracting up to one million visitors, the Stampede was set to open in two short weeks, on July 5. As much as 14 feet of floodwater had washed through the Stampede grounds and filled the first 10 rows of the lower seating bowls of the Scotiabank Sad- dledome, the city’s largest indoor arena, which sits in Stampede Park.

Stampede organizers, however, refused to let the flood wash away plans for the event. President and Chairman Bob Thompson told the Calgary Sun: “Throughout our entire history, we have never canceled a show despite two wars and a depression. We will be hosting the greatest outdoor show on earth, come hell or high water.”

Last month, about midway through the Stampede, Convene spoke to Greg Newton, sales development manager for the not-for-profit Calgary Stampede. Here’s what he shared about how the organization was able to keep the Stam- pede afloat:

The Calgary Stampede in itself is some- what of its own city. So as much as we offer it as our own convention center on a year-round basis and then for our big event in July, we have all of our own trades — electricians — at a very large capacity. We have members on our team that are in the emergency response cen- ter for the entire city as well.

So we knew the flood really was meant to crescendo around 6 a.m. on Friday, June 21. We knew on Thursday that it was coming. We did not know the extent it was going to be, and we were in emergency-preparation planning at that point.

We had a sizable convention with us that was wrapping up that day at 3 p.m., with all move-out and delegates out of the building by 5 p.m. So, it just fell at a really opportune time for us. And we didn’t have another event coming in until that Saturday. We were able to anticipate. We were able to get all our crews working on sandbagging and so forth, trying to protect our buildings as much as possible in advance of the actual flood hitting.

‘The power of the water — to put it in perspective,’ Calgary Stampede’s Greg Newton said, ‘picked one of the bridges right up and pushed it right into another bridge. The volume was intense.’

Naturally, that is still a short window. We were working on maybe a 12-hour notice. And I think the biggest thing, honestly, that saved us was having those skilled trades in the volume that we do that we were able to protect the sub- stations. Parts of our city were really affected because they lost power, and when you lose power with a flood, it takes so long to bring it up because you have to make sure everything is dry or you risk fire.

We had trade [workers] that were tell- ing us at that point they would have to be fired before they would leave their sub- station. So we had people going 20 hours straight just pumping water out, and it was their passion for the City of Calgary and the Stampede that kept all our power up at the Stampede Park — so when the water did start receding on Sunday, we were able to get in and not have to worry about having electricity. We had electricity — now it was just a cleanup.

Depending where you were on park, we had up to 15 feet of water. We have 200 acres in Downtown Calgary. Different areas were impacted. We have a number of bridges that cross the river on our park. The power of the water — to put it into perspective — picked one of the bridges right up and pushed it right into another bridge. So, the volume was intense. Towards the back of our park we have barns, and the water was up to the roof of the barns.

[Fortunately], we had no animals on park during the time of the flooding. We have two ranches that are outside of the city limits, … so we bring the animals in when we require them. They are not housed here on a year-round basis. And then competitor horses [for the Stam- pede] would not have been coming for another 10 days [at that point].


Certainly there was a question [about whether the Stampede would be able to go on] as we watched the waters [rise] on Friday. What happened was it was meant to hit its high at about 6 a.m. We have two rivers that essentially meet not very far from where we are, and the one river that wraps around us really probably hit its peak somewhere around 6 a.m., but it was the other river that — when it hit its peak much later on Friday — started backing up with enough force to reverse the flow of the other river. And that is really the water that flooded all of Downtown Calgary.

We had a total of 13 events planned in our facilities between the flood and when the Stampede actually started [July 5]. Those event [planners] were all contacted — I spent my entire Friday watching the water rise and at the same time contacting all those clients to cancel in advance. We had an international show coming to us. We were able to cancel that in enough time by being aggressive enough and not waiting [until it was] too late in the process. They were actually able to save their event by taking it to another location. We have rescheduled a couple of the events and are working on a number of the others. This was such a large-scale event that everybody was understanding.

Our primary convention center space is the BMO Centre Stampede Park. That building was impacted. We will have the month of August when we will have to do things like replace carpet and refinish floor treatments and replace drywall up to certain heights, but otherwise, that building was predominantly unaffected. It received very little water. We had our luxury suites that are around our rodeo area — the water just missed them by mere inches or else we would have lost that, which would have been huge.

We did have another suite that was completely demolished, and a team came in and redesigned it — rebuilt it in two weeks. We have another building that is about over 100,000 square feet of space on two floors. The lower level is inaccessible still, so it’s closed. We’ve lost that space. Our human resources building is currently not able to be occupied. So, we had to move them into some of our space in our convention center, and then the lowest level of our headquarters building is still not able to be occupied.

And then naturally the hockey arena [the Scotiabank Saddledome] that the Calgary Flames play out of is on our property as well, and it was damaged. We had to cancel all four of our major concerts [that were part of the Stampede activities] with Kiss, the Dixie Chicks, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Keith Urban. All four of those concerts needed to be canceled, as that building is not able to be occupied at this point.

The infield track for the chuckwagon races — we rebuilt that track two years ago. I believe it took us about three months to build that track. The animals need certain layers of gravel and rock and shale before the dirt — it’s really important to those thoroughbred horses. And, really, that was one of those breaking moments of the flood as we were really watching the water come up and hoping that we would not lose the track, because it takes such a long time to rebuild it. We did lose the track at about 1:30 p.m. on Friday, which was a heartbreaking moment. That’s when you start questioning what is going to happen with the Stampede.

We were able to rebuild that track in the slightly less than two weeks that we had — and from what we’re hearing from the competitors, they’re absolutely loving that track. We had to strip it right down to bedrock and rebuild it. That was trucks going 24 hours a day, crews working 24 hours a day to rebuild that track in the amount of time they had. It’s just incredible, and we’ve had some great partners helping us through the process.


There has been a lot of excitement. Our ticket sales for most of our ticketed events were all sold-out in advance. We are still facing some inclement weather, which has hurt our attendance numbers. We’re down — it’s hard to beat our numbers from last year, being that was our 100th anniversary. But even compared to 2011, we’re down, but very incrementally. And I would blame that not on the floods. I would blame that on the fact that it’s been raining every day.

[That we pulled this off] is really the power of people — in a difficult time, you really see what people are capable of. We as an organization are not-for-profit and heavily volunteer-based. We have somewhere in the vicinity of 4,000 volunteers that help us out during the Stampede, and it was a difficult time because the city, the downtown core, was a natural disaster zone. So, with a lockdown you had to clear security to come in, and we couldn’t have any of those volunteers come in to help us — nor did we want them to. We sent all of our volunteers out into the community to be in the emergency response centers and helping the citizens of Calgary get back into their homes. And that really needed to be the focus for Calgarians.

Now we’re here and we’re having a celebration that is fantastic — a little moment for people to take their mind off of everything that is happening.

The Calgary Stampede has upwards of a $350-million economic impact on the city. We operate as a convention center on a year-round basis, and then we basically hold our own convention for 10 days. It’s our Stampede. And that economic impact is so important to so many citizens that canceling the Stampede would have had a lot larger impact than not going ahead. We really needed to find a way to make it happen.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.