As Calgarians affected by the floods rebuild, many of us are asking ourselves, "what would I try to save?"

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Rebuilding Homes and Lives: What We Lost (and Gained) in the Flood

If you’re one of the lucky ones whose home emerged whole and dry after the June 2013 flooding, then questions about what you would do in the face of such all-consuming disaster make for a kind of parlour game, something to be discussed over after-dinner Scotch. 

What would you take with you if you were ordered to evacuate, if yours had been one of the homes in the floodwaters’ path? What if it were your clothes, your favourite shoes, your albums and heirlooms and toys and treasures, old letters and every birthday card you never threw away that ended up sodden and contaminated, floating in toxic muck?

What if you lost not just a few, but all of your favourite things?

The luxury of hindsight lets us believe we’d have it all figured out. What we might not consider is that the experience of losing everything changes the relationship we have with our possessions. Some items might take on more meaning, while others that seemed so important are suddenly insignificant. Even with remediation, life does not go on as before.

For Sunnyside resident Trish Dribnenki, nostalgia became an emotional burden when the fate of her sub-ground-level condominium hung in the balance. Instead, she took a hard-line stance on not crying over the loss of her treasured possessions, drawing on the kind of survival instincts she’s developed working as a psychiatric nurse and raising an 18-year-old son as a single mom. 

Dribnenki was out celebrating a friend’s birthday on the evening of Thursday, June 20, when she began receiving texts about her neighbourhood’s evacuation order. She headed home at that point and encountered her son, Oliver Pennock, who had gone back for the dog. With her son off to spend the night with his friend, Dribnenki grabbed a change of clothes and some toiletries and went to stay at a friend’s house in Acadia. 

That night, she recalls, her primary concern was a stack of documents and papers she had compiled in order to do her income tax. “That stuff is such a hassle to get later,” Dribnenki says. 

The following morning, she returned to the condo, finding it still dry. She retrieved the income-tax documents and some other personal papers and left again. At 4 p.m. that day, a friend from the neighbourhood called bearing bad news: Dribnenki’s home was half-full of water.

Dribnenki defied the strict evacuation orders at that point and made another visit on Friday evening. Though the condo was filled thigh-high with water, she was able to fulfill her son’s request to grab his comics and yearbooks and then got out again as quickly as possible. She wouldn’t go back again until Sunday, June 23. 

For the most part, the devastation in Sunnyside was not a result of overland flooding but was caused by sewer and storm-drain backup. Dribnenki’s condominium unit was particularly hard hit. The majority of her possessions were coated in fetid sludge, including all of her photos, which had been in a large bin that was upended by the rising water.

Friends made the case that the photos could be washed and salvaged, but Dribnenki decided she needed to let them go. “I wish I could explain exactly how it feels, but you feel this weird revulsion and it’s so strong that you almost want to barf,” she says. “When it’s a crisis, you’re like, if I look at those pictures, if I have any attachment to any of my things, I’m just going to lie down and die.”

Dribnenki attributes her steely resolve to her need to be strong for her son. Had he not been a part of the equation, she might have allowed herself to be a bit more self-absorbed, she says. What was more important than the lost photos was figuring out how to rebuild and refurnish her condo on a budget of $10,000.

Even though this amount was later increased to $35,000 — the combined payout from her home insurance provider and her condominium corporation — it was still a very tight budget for a full-scale reconstruction. After Dribnenki made several disheartening attempts to get additional flood-relief funding, she had a chance encounter with staff members from local building contractor Pinnacle Homes, who took her story to heart. With the aid of the builder and its network of contractors, she was able to complete the project on budget.

Over the course of four months, when Dribnenki and her son were shuttling from house to house, trying not to overstay their welcome with accommodating friends, she began discarding even those few possessions that had been salvaged. Carting her things around, even items she had taken the time to clean up and save, became a burden. She felt they had become a physical and emotional detriment to the primary task of getting back in her home, having walls on which to hang artwork. 

Despite her resolve, she’s often overwhelmed by the demands of refurbishing and refurnishing a home from square one. Prior to moving back in, Dribnenki went to IKEA to purchase a duvet cover and had what she describes as a “meltdown” brought on by the expanse of things and accessories — all the stuff that fills a residence. She left without buying linens. 

“I think, now, what’s important to me is my memories, because those can’t be washed away,” says Dribnenki. “I want to hold dear all my friends and my son because that’s what’s important. Stupid stuff like your favourite pair of shoes really means nothing.”

High River resident Chelsea Malmberg’s home in the eastern part of the town was also hard hit. Like Dribnenki’s in Sunnyside, Malmberg’s home wasn’t affected so much by overland water as it was by sewer and storm-drain backup, which flooded her basement with five feet of sewage. 

The basement, of course, needed a complete gutting and do-over. The main floor and second storey required new carpet and flooring to combat the spread of mould.

Malmberg is separated from her husband and lives in the home with her two kids. During the evacuation, she was able to retrieve a handful of sentimental items from the house: an heirloom artwork created by her grandma who had recently passed away, her father’s guitar, a collection of videos of her kids and the family’s passports. “That was all that was on my mind,” she says. “It was what I cared about the whole time I was gone. Everything else in the house didn’t matter.”

That’s not to say her heart didn’t break when she had to explain to her son and daughter, aged seven and five, respectively, that their basement playroom had flooded and their toys were all gone. It was also tough to lose her own baby pictures, which were all in the basement — her mother had brought them over just a couplof days before the flood hit.

Malmberg has since replaced the kids’ favourite items — stuffed toys for her daughter, Lego for her son. Above and beyond that, she has chosen to view this purge of possessions as the start of a new era of simplicity for her family.  

During the months following the flood, when they were displaced from their home, Malmberg and her kids, along with her boyfriend and his three kids, stayed together in a house on a friend’s farm. 

“We went through a summer of living off of donations, not having toys, not having TV, not having the Internet — aside from our phones — and it was a beautiful life,” she says. “The kids played outside. The girls painted rocks with donated nail polish — that’s what they’d do for hours, just sit outside and paint rocks. It was just a simple, beautiful life.”

Like Dribnenki, Malmberg’s primary concern was for the home itself, rather than for all the things that were in it. In her case, the repairs were covered by insurance. “Once I found out that, yes, we will have a house to live in, I was just so grateful for that, to have a roof we could rebuild under,” she says. “I’m so happy to be in my house, even when I’m just washing my dishes. I can’t even explain how grateful I am to have my house back … The rest truly did just become stuff.”

Malmberg’s newfound appreciation for simplicity is common for people who have experienced a wide-scale loss of possessions due to natural disaster, says Susan Shores, a full-time counsellor with the Calgary Counselling Centre. Prior to arriving in Calgary, Shores lived in the Okanagan and witnessed first-hand the fires in Kelowna in 2003 and in Salmon Arm in 1998. She says there are definite parallels between those disasters and the Calgary flood.  

“I’m struck over and over by people saying, ‘You know what? I’m not missing this stuff as much as I expected,’ ” Shores says. 

“Initially, for the people who had to visually witness the widespread loss, it’s horrific for them, that initial shock of seeing things that have been damaged. As human beings, we have a natural need for order and control, and things feel very much out of order and out of control. 

“But, once they start coming to us [for counselling],” Shores adds, “what I’ve noticed is that they reflect back and say, for the most part, that the possessions themselves — aside from the sentimental possessions — don’t really mean as much as they thought they did.”

The riverside neighbourhood of Elbow Park suffered some of the most extensive overland flooding in Calgary. Many of the residents had experienced flooding back in 2005 as well, though the scope of that year’s disaster did little to prepare them for what happened last June.

Cathy Dorrington and her husband, both emergency physicians, had three feet of water in their basement in 2005 and had lost personal items, mementoes and photos. When news of the impending 2013 flood reached them, they were determined not to have that happen again and made a concerted effort to move items to top shelves in the basement and up to the main floor. 

Dorrington took extra precautions with a special collection of things that had survived the first flood — Christmas decorations, photo albums and travel mementoes — stowing them up on the second floor. “Having gone through it once and having lost things, I took less risk,” she says. “We knew it was going to happen; we knew we were going to get water. We just never imagined how much.”

As it turned out, this time the home took on 11 feet of water, rising up to three feet on the main floor. The remediation required an entire gutting of the fully finished basement, as well as what Dorrington describes as a “wholesale rebuild” of the main level — all the flooring, bathroom fixtures and the majority of the custom kitchen cabinetry and built-ins had to be removed. 

Fortunately, says Dorrington, her family’s financial situation means the bills involved with the rebuilding of the home aren’t their primary stress. But what has affected them most deeply is being displaced from their tight-knit community.  

“To lose that connection with your neighbours, your friends — that’s been difficult,” she says. “I think we already knew and appreciated what a special neighbourhood we lived in. Not living in our neighbourhood has really reinforced that for us.” 

Mike Tweedie’s childhood home in Elbow Park also flooded into the main floor. Since the home had remained dry in 2005, Tweedie says the family was not prepared for the scale of destruction in 2013. 

He recalls returning to the house with his parents after the evacuation order was lifted and seeing the neighbour’s deck in the middle of their backyard. “You walk outside and every single person in every single direction is standing on their front doorstep with the exact same look on their face,” he says. “You realize there’s no one to call for help because everyone is in the same situation.”

Tweedie’s parents are Scottish immigrants who came to Calgary 40 years ago on their honeymoon and never left. Over those decades, they came to acquire a collection of heirlooms and antiques, intending to pass them on to their kids. Heeding the flood warnings, they moved many of these items to high shelves in the basement, believing this would more than suffice. Most of these treasured items are now gone.

Elbow Park is an undeniably affluent neighbourhood, but all the wealth in the world can’t replace these sorts of things, says Tweedie. “All the pictures, the books, my parents’ wedding photos, the stuff that meant something, you can’t get that back,” he says. “A lot of our neighbours have a lot of money, but they don’t own a time machine; they can’t go back and save that stuff.”

Tweedie says the feeling of chucking a 50-inch plasma-screen TV onto a trash heap is surreal. But it didn’t get to him like seeing the miniature tea set that had been given to his late grandmother when she was a girl shattered all over the floor. As with the other family heirlooms, the tea set was more than just a tea set. It was a connection to the family’s past that was to be passed on to his sister’s kids. “You’re not getting that back, and, even if you could buy an exact replica, it wouldn’t be the same thing because it doesn’t have a story,” Tweedie says. 

The experience has left Tweedie fiercely protective of the few items he was able to salvage from his parents’ flooded home. “I don’t think you lose the desire to cherish things,” he says. 

In some cases, we might even cherish them more. A 1994 study by Shay Sayre conducted at California State University, chronicling the experiences of victims of the devastating residential fires that swept through Oakland in 1991, spoke of the way objects reclaimed in the aftermath of the destruction were “redefined” by the experience and given “new meanings.”

“Objects’ resilience to the fire delivered them to a state of reverence for many victims who embraced charred artifacts as symbols of their past lives,” the study stated. “For most, possessions recovered became possessions prized.” 

The desire to elevate these objects speaks of the natural inclination to give meaning to inanimate objects. Unlike people, who are constantly changing, objects have the illusion of permanence, allowing them to encapsulate our memories. Wedding albums come to represent the actual events they depict, while heirlooms come to represent the actual people who passed them on. It’s profoundly upsetting when these objects are lost because the feeling is that the memories and the people are lost with them.

The greater loss is what these items meant, not only what they meant to us as the vessels of our memories but also what they meant about us. As the CSU study pondered: “If we are what we own, then who are we when we own nothing?” Perhaps the better parlour game question than “What would you save?” is “If you lost everything, who would you become?” 

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