After the Flood: Sunnyhill Clean Up Day 8


Yesterday afternoon, I crashed, hard, so hard, and today, as for the first time since the flood I took a look at what we salvaged and had to think about what we lost, I crashed harder, and spent much of the morning and early afternoon trying NOT to look at the smudged, wordless papers that used to be—long-handed manuscripts, first drafts of my first rejections, starts of terrible novels, terrible teen angst poetry… my first published short story… letters, letters, so many letters, from so many loves, and, perhaps most awfully, the shreds and excerpts of my own letters to the lover who would become my life partner and the father of my three children. The ink had run, you see, and there was nothing but a discernible sentence here, a paragraph there, every once in a while, an entire page among a dozen, a hundred… I wanted to howl in pain and pound on walls and scream, scream, scream… but there were children in the house to be taken care of, loved and protected, and people around who needed help, and so I just wept, silently, behind my sunglasses…

And pulled myself together and took a gang of Sunnyhill children to Riley Park to play in clean, mud-free, never-touched-by-sewage water, and sat on the grass and watched them be happy. And, while they were happy, still wept.

And I decided when I came home that I would write it all down and tell you about it, so you’d understand why your friends and family and neighbours and strangers who’ve just gone “through the worst,” and are coming back “home,” and should be “getting back to normal”–aren’t.

But then… when I came back home from Riley Park, my friend Carolyn was crouching in front of my front door battling the silt off the first piece of furniture I ever bought as an adult—a faux antique that followed me from Calgary to Montreal and back again, something that I was reluctant to toss to the curb even though it was full of mud and water. My dad was out back pressure-washing the salvage from the upper part of our ground floor while my mom was doing about six loads of my post-flood laundry at her house. My brother got on Facebook to give me shit for asking other people to store our winter clothes when clearly he had space and did I not know he would do anything for me? Unflooded Sunnysider Wendy showed up on Sunnyhill Lane with a friend and a Bobcat to battle our mud. Flooded Sunnysider Janine told me to take the salvage of my writing life and spread it all over her basement and balcony as I needed, because she had space and I didn’t.

And my before-the-flood-unknown-but-now-beloved neighbour Susan left her own flooded house to do my dishes, because she heard me say that I just didn’t have the energy to deal with my kitchen…

“It’s not important. I’ll do them myself, in a bit,” I tried to ward her off.

“Say yes,” she said. “You’ve been telling us all week to say Yes!”

And Jackie, who brought me a mocha the day before when I was in tears, reinforced the message…

So my need to explain to you why you need to let me—all of us, yourselves—weep and scream and howl in pain, and how “you’re so lucky” and “it could have been so much worse” are not something you should be saying to anyone in Calgary right now—has been superseded by my desire to capture some of the wonder of what it is you saved when you saved Sunnyhill, Sunnyside, Bowness—what you’re doing as you race to save High River, Mission, Elbow Park, our other communities.

See, this thing that happened in Calgary over the past week, this incredible thing that happened in every affected community and neighbourhood, it’s all about the power of community, the power of social capital, the power of self-initiative and will coupled with the desire to belong to, be part of, contribute to something greater than itself.

What you did this week? You didn’t just save Sunnnyhill—Sunnyside–Calgary–whatever pocket of our amazing city you were working in.

You showed the people all around the possibility, the potential, the power of community.

Such a silly, cliche word. Politicians throw it around all the time. As do developers. They don’t know what it means. But the people who live at Sunnyhill, we know what it means.

Let me explain.

Sunnyhill Housing Co-op is a community of 66 households. Tucked away in the northeast corner—swamp land, flood plain—of Sunnyside—we are a social-democratic form of affordable housing. Research co-operative housing if you are not familiar with it. The basic idea is that this is housing on which no one makes a profit. We are each other’s landlords. We all own the property collectively: we buy in as shareholders when we move in … and when we choose to move out, we get our share buy-in back. And not a penny more. It’s a revolutionary idea, really. We make no money on the inflation, real or otherwise, of the value of our property. Think about this for 60 seconds. Sunnyhill is paying down the last leg of its 1978 mortgage.

Think about what we are able to do for our members as a result…

… and then, jump away from the finances, and think about what we, during the days immediately after the flood, were able to accomplish as a community.

We’re not perfect, god no. Sometimes, when we get uber-frustrated with each other, we call ourselves the Sunnyhill Unco-operative. But at our real-life worst, this is true: we are a community. We are connected.

And so—we were able to save all of our 41 flooded units in 72 hours.

I want you to ponder the significance, the wonder of this for a minute or two.

We were in the most flooded, last released part of East Sunnyside.

We were let in on Monday. By Tuesday, all 41 of our 66 units—and so flooded, you wish to god they weren’t yours—were gutted. By Wednesday, all of them were scrubbed, bleached, demolded and inspected. On Thursday, they all had demolded “DONE!” stickers on them. All with volunteer labour.

This is fucking amazing.

Not a little amazing.

Fucking amazing,

41 units. In a little co-op in Sunnyside. Many of them inhabited by single or elderly people, who could not have done this work themselves—or could not have done afforded to do this work themselves. No way. Who would not have, perhaps, known who to call–how to get things done–just how urgent the crisis was.


See, what co-operative housing does, what it enshrines, you can achieve on your street, on our block, in your neighbourhood.

But it’s easier for us, because, before the flood, we were already an interdependent community.

We were aware of our connections. Of our responsibilities.

When we got the call at 6:45 that we had to evacuate at 7 p.m. on Thursday—we didn’t just pack our own belongings into our cars and drive off. We took care of our most vulnerable. We made sure that those members of our community who were alone—who were elderly—who were otherwise vulnerable—had a place to go. And if they didn’t–we found them a place. We took them with us.

When we saw what the flood waters had done to our community on Friday—we started to pull together. Meet. Plan. Share photos, information.

By Saturday, still banned from coming near our homes, we had information about what was going on. And we met as a community to discuss fears, plans, potential plans.

On Sunday, still evacuated, we saw the enormity of what we needed to do. And we knew, immediately, not only that none of our members could do it alone, but that we as a co-op could not do it alone.

And we called out for help.

And you answered.

Not just for us. You came, a volunteer army, for every affected community.

But I think you were particularly effective in Sunnyhill. And I think you were particularly effective in Sunnyhill, because, from day one, we called to you as a community. Not as one homeowner or resident, struggling to save his basement and home.

And that’s important, beloved. I do not begrudge you your struggle, do not diminish your effort and your pain, and your right to save your home. But it’s easier to call for help as a community than as an individual. It’s easier to accept help as a community than as an individual.

It’s easier, so much easier, for me to say to Calgary, all of Calgary, “I need your help saving Sunnyhill!” than it would be for me to say to my friends, “I need you to save my little home on Sunnyhill Lane.”

We called to you as a community, and we used our collective social capital to save every single one of our units.

As any community, we consist of all sorts of people. The strong and the weak, the connected and the estranged. People with different connections. Different skills.

We drew on all of them.

Our members each did what they could do to help.

Not equally. Not in the same way. But–with an eye to helping our entire community. Not saving their individual unit.

Me, among my skills is writing well and communicating effectively. Give me a platform and an issue, and I will tell the story. So I did. And you got it. And you came.

I’m also incredibly bossy, so when you came, I told you exactly what you to do. (Thank you, by the way, for listening.)

My beloved life partner, conversely, can hold a thousand technical details in his head. Upon seeing a unit, hearing a member’s concerns, he remembered what had to be done in it. He told me. I sent you… drew on the expertise of other members, with other connections and strengths…

Each of us, within the co-op, within our community, deployed whatever strength they had.

The person with a passion and knowledge for safety and health—kept us informed on those issues.

The person plugged into insurance and government information kept the entire community abreast on those developments.

The people handy with a crowbar or saw ensured deconstruction went quickly.

The people with an eye for detail made sure drywall and insulation got dug out of every last corner.

The people with strong social networks made sure we got the help we needed, when we needed it. (We got bandaids delivered to the site via Regina and anti-fungal spray via Newfoundland… but that’s another story.)

The people who could cook, fed us.

The people who had knowledge about—whatever piece this disaster required of us—shared it. And we used it.

And so it went.

We didn’t do it perfectly. What in real life is perfect? Nothing.

But, fuck, my beloveds, we did AMAZING.

41 units gutted, bleached and demolded, in 72-96 hours, depending on how you count.

A Common ready for common use in less than a week. (And what a party it was, eh, beloveds? You missed it? Come this Saturday. Or next. The firepit is lit at Sunnyhill every Saturday at 6 p.m.)

The social and expert network of every member leveraged to its max.

This is amazing.

Those of you who are working to save your communities now in Alberta, who are just now coming into the crisis hour—even those of you out of crisis who are starting to move into the long term recovery phase—I need all of you to pay attention to this, and take it to heart.

It is easier to save an entire community than an individual home.

It is easier to ask for help for all of you—than just for yourself.

I could not have done what I’ve done for Sunnyhill—I would not have dared to ask for what I’ve asked for for Sunnyhill—if I had been acting as an individual, racing to save my own home.

It’s cliche. Whatever. Cliches are often cliches because they’re true.

We saved Sunnyhill because we acted as a community. Because we worked to save our community, and not our individual homes.

This is so important. I’m going to repeat it again, shout it:

It is easier to save a community than an individual home. Act like a community.

It is easier to ask for help for a community than for yourself. You know it’s true. Act like a community.

Homeowners, residents, communities, as you work to rebuild, you must remember this too: it doesn’t matter if you save yourself, rebuild yourself, if everything around you falls apart and rots. We’re all interconnected. We’re none of us self-sustaining. We need each other.

We need that Calgary, Alberta-wide army of volunteers.

When they come offering help—say yes.

And remember: it’s easier to say “yes” when you know that it’s not about saving your house. It’s about saving our community.

To all of our volunteers: when you turned out to help Sunnyhill? When you gutted, bleached, demolded Sunnyhill? As you keep on coming back to clean Sunnyhill? This is what you saved. A community that thinks as a community. That, from the first moment, thought about saving, helping everyone. Not just one house, one unit.

We’re not unique. This lesson, this scenario played out across Calgary in the best-organized, most conscious communities.

Don’t forget it as we enter our long, long phase of rebuilding.

It’s not about individual homes. It’s about us all. Our communities. Our city. Our cities.

Meanwhile… I’m still weepy. We’re all still weepy, aren’t we? But we’re going to be okay. Because we’re fucking amazing. And we’re going to rebuild US ALL.

Thank you.

From Sunnyhill. Sunnyside. Every flooded neighbourhood. Calgary. Alberta.