Just over a week ago, on June 20, 2013 I was sitting inside the National Music Centre’s Stage One performance space watching a really great documentary by Caroline Martel called Wavemakers (Le Chant Des Ondes) about the Ondes Martenot. Following the film there was a planned demonstration of this magnificent instrument from our very own collection. Plans drastically changed when members of the City of Calgary’s Fire Department told us we were being evacuated due to the risk of severe flooding in the neighborhood. Their exact words were, “By midnight this entire block is going to be underwater.”
I could tell by the look on everyone’s faces that this news was incredibly shocking. NMC is located on 11 Avenue SE, nearly 10 blocks away from the river, on the edge of Victoria Park in downtown Calgary. How could it possibly flood this far inland? It couldn’t! Not during Sled Island, the feisty upstart music festival that attracted over 100 bands to Calgary each year. Not with all the effort and preparation that so many people took in making it possible. There was no way.
As much as one might try to wish for something to be untrue, the reality is when the Fire Marshall tells you to evacuate, you do as you’re asked.
The announcement was made shortly after 7:00 pm, not quite halfway through the film. Stage One emptied of all the confused festival-goers, NMC staff made all the necessary last step preparations around the building, and our Artists-in-Residence, Jerusalem in My Heart, began dismantling their gear from the stage they set up for their show later that night.
In that moment my heart sank because I knew how badly they wanted to perform the new composition they had been working on all week during their residency. This was supposed to be a once in a lifetime show—I know, because only four hours prior to the evacuation they told me all about it in their video testimonial.
We found them a cab and they loaded their gear, hopefully to be back again one day.
I finished grabbing everything I thought I'd need over the next few days away from my desk. I had no idea how long until we return to work, my best guess at this point was a day or two. With nothing left for me to do I stepped outside and started to make my way home.
Still in a slight daze of confusion and disbelief about being evacuated, I stepped off the curb to cross the street out front of the building. I noticed it finally stopped raining. The sun was out, it was bright, calm, and warm, but then I noticed the storm drain was filled to the brim with water and I started to panic.
Without hesitation I called Jesse Moffatt, our Collections Manager, and informed him of the evacuation and the level of water in the storm drains. I was only employed by NMC for less than two months, but all I could think about was the orientation tour of the basement that I took on my first day—the basement that stored some of our collection.
Jesse didn’t seem as panicked as I was; in fact he was borderline calm. At first I thought he was either in a state of shock like everyone else who were forced to leave the building, or he didn’t actually believe me. Now I know, after a week of dealing with the aftermath of the flood, Jesse was calm because he knew everything was going to be all right. He assured me he'd be down as soon as he could to assess the situation and not to worry.
We put a call out on social media asking if anyone could lend us a gas powered water pump with at least 200 feet of hose, or if anyone knew of any commercial freezer space we could use to store artifacts if they happened to get wet. Freezing them stops mold growth—good to know!
We weren’t able to find a water pump, despite the efforts of many folks who helped spread the message on Twitter and Facebook. Luckily, one of our staff members was able to buy one and somehow haul it through flooded streets just in time to start pumping water out before it got too out of hand.
By the next morning it was clear to us that the Fire Marshall was right. The entire block of 11 Avenue SE where NMC is situated was completely underwater, along with our neighbours in Victoria Park and the East Village.
Later that day Sled Island announced they were cancelling the rest of the festival. It was apparent this flood was going to be a major disaster, greater than anything Calgary has seen—the party couldn't go on, not like this.
At the height of the flooding we sustained four feet of water in the sub-basement at NMC and 18 inches in the actual basement—which stores a number of upright and grand pianos, keyboards, and other electronic equipment, as well as several boxes of artifact documentation and a variety other miscellaneous items. Anything with value that could be moved was lifted to higher ground. All in all, the damage was minimal and we considered ourselves lucky.
The core of the collection is on the second floor of the building, away from the potential threat of flooding—this is why Jesse was so calm.
Even though only a few “less significant” artifacts were damaged, there are still several things Jesse and his collections team have been taking very seriously. First and foremost is the safety of any staff and volunteers who are helping to remove the water and move all artifacts from the basement to a secondary location for analysis and treatment. The building is currently without power, making any work in a basement exponentially more difficult in the dark. In a situation like this, hazards are plentiful—every step must be taken carefully.
Another major concern is the development of mold. Apparently mold spores can develop within 12 hours of the initial entry of water. This is why we brought in Michael Harrington, a heritage disaster recovery specialist, to help our Collections staff ensure mold doesn't spread to artifacts that were unaffected by the flooding.
Michael, Jesse, and the rest of the Collections team are working very hard to save what we can and protect the rest of the collection.
“We are confident that we did everything we could during the flood and we will continue to do everything we can until the last of the mess is cleaned up.”
– Jesse Moffatt, Collections Manager at the National Music Centre
So the treasure is safe—the core of the collection is fine, only minimal damage to some items, the power is out but ENMAX is working hard to have it restored soon… What about the construction site for the new building in the East Village?
It’s also fine.
There currently isn’t much more to the site than a giant hole in the ground, so the hole temporarily turned into a giant lake. The giant lake was pumped out and is back to being a giant hole once again.
And the historic King Eddy building? It’s stable and weathered the storm with no damage. Construction is slated to resume shortly. Our building site web cam caught the speed and scope of the flooding.
NMC is totally OK and is working on getting things back to normal, but in the meantime our office is still closed. Our staff have been meeting offsite regularly to keep operations going; making restaurants, living rooms, coffee shops, borrowed board rooms and even TELUS Spark our temporary meeting space.
We’ve had to cancel or postpone all scheduled events for the next while. We are working hard to find other venues or rescheduling to a later date, with some success. RBC Summit Jazz Series with the Curtis Macdonald Trio on June 29 has been moved to a different venue. They will now be playing at Steinway Pianos just off MacLeod Trail. Unfortunately our weekly tours will be cancelled until further notice.
As you can see from the photographs below, there's lots of work to be done trying to salvage and restore what we can. This could take months, and there will be a definite need for volunteers to help with the process when the time comes.
“So incredibly touched and moved by the generous support our community here in Calgary and across Canada continues to express for our city, the National Music Centre, and all organizations affected recently by the flood. It’s so meaningful to experience the love first hand. Thank you Canada, merçi beaucoup!”
– Andrew Mosker, President and CEO of the National Music Centre
Coping with this disaster has been an emotional rollercoaster, but what really stands out for me—and what has risen above all the destruction and devastation—is how our city came together in a time of need. Mayor Nenshi is right, we are all family now. Strangers have become friends and everyday people have become heroes. We’ve grown stronger and closer, more caring and kind. As a community we’ve come together like never before and as a family we begin to heal.
Music can help heal as well.
I was personally inspired to hear that the evacuation centres were putting out calls for volunteer musicians—not for more food, or blankets, or other necessities. No, they already had enough of that stuff because people were practically giving the shirts off their backs. Instead, they wanted volunteer musicians to entertain people who had been displaced from their homes, and in some cases from their families as well. They asked for people to show up with guitars or other portable instruments, to play to people who were emotionally destroyed from the chaos they were dealing with. They legitimately decided that the best thing for these people was music, and music is all it took—not to fix everything obviously—but it helped provide comfort to people who had lost everything, at least for a while.
I’ve heard it said a hundred times that “music heals”—whether it’s the heart, or the soul, or what-have-you, but I’ve always thought this was a little bit superficial. It was something that sounded nice—it was poetic, a bit romantic—but physically impossible. I know now, after seeing how music has helped in this situation, that it isn’t impossible at all.
The process of rebuilding our city will be a long road, but we'll all get there eventually and if any of us at the National Music Centre can help in any way, just let us know!
Until then Calgary, you can go to yychelps.ca to register as a volunteer to help clean up around the city.
Keep calm and rock on!
– Brandon Wallis