Skip to content

Bragg Creekers reflect as 10th anniversary of 2013 floods approaches

“We just did what we could,” Breakey said. “It was amazing how everyone rallied.”

A month after the flood of the century ravaged Bragg Creek in 2013, an Alberta government bureaucrat assigned to explain to residents how the recovery assistance program would work interrupted a homeowner in the audience who was up at the microphone explaining his situation.

The tension in the hall was palpable, as many residents were exhausted from long hours of clean-up efforts, and still unsure whether they would repair, rebuild, or relocate.

And the Alberta government's hastily conceived, confusing assistance program was obviously going to be a communications challenge, which just amplified the tension in the room. 

The bureaucrat, trying to follow along on the giant map on the wall with its floodplain recovery zones marked in various colours, was having trouble pinpointing exactly where on the shores of the Elbow River this resident’s house was.

So he asked him, “Where exactly is your home?”

Dick Koetsier’s response elicited maybe the first heartfelt laughter many in the crowded community centre had allowed themselves in recent weeks.

“Well,” he replied with a shrug, “probably halfway through Saskatchewan by now.”

The stunned bureaucrat was likely the only one in the room who wasn’t aware it was Koetsier’s house that had become the iconic image of the 2013 flood, featured in dramatic news video footage broadcast across the continent. The green roof of Koetsier’s abode was visible as the entire house was carried by the raging tide, crashing into the bridge in Bragg Creek before being swept away in pieces downstream.

Liz Breakey, the Rocky View County councillor for the area at the time, witnessed the house colliding with the bridge in person on June 20. She remembers “hollering” at people to get off the bridge, where they were watching the carnage unfold, blithely unaware of the imminent danger.

The entire flood experience started for her around 5 am on June 19, 2013, when her husband called to wake her up as he was driving to work. He suggested she go down to have a look at the river. She met a friend by the shore, and one look was all it took.

“I said, ‘We’re in trouble,’’ Breakey recalled.

During the 24-hour period between 11 am on Wednesday, June 19 and 11 am the next morning, 98 millimetres (mm) of rain fell at the monitoring station in Bragg Creek. The highest water level of 4.73 metres was reported on June 20 at 11 am.

As of 11 am on June 22, about 168 mm of rain had fallen in three days. But the numbers didn’t truly do justice to the power of the wall of flowing destruction that was soon to be unleashed on the unsuspecting hamlet.

The rain fell on already saturated ground, and combined with heavy snow loads remaining in the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains and the steep watershed, the result would be the worst flood in Alberta’s history.

Until the Fort McMurray fire a couple of years later, the Bragg Creek flood remained the most costly natural disaster in Canadian history.

Breakey called everyone she knew to warn them. She also called school bus operators to ask them to not pick up children, but was ignored. She said it was an all-too-common response: people didn’t believe her description of the danger on the way.

The next day, as she stood with others in front of the Fusion restaurant, the water rushed in “from out of nowhere” and they were up to their knees in minutes as the Elbow River breached its banks and the water took over the hamlet.

The recently buried gasoline tank installed at the Husky gas station floated up out of its hole and sat askew on the surface.

A Bragg Creek landmark, the original Trading Post store, sustained major damage, and lost 95 per cent of its inventory. They would later rebuild the historic storefront.

The bridge on Balsam Ave. was closed later that day due to the erosion of the embankment and potential structural damage caused by the house crashing into it, leaving many residents of West Bragg Creek with no escape route.

Around 11 pm that night, a handful of neighbouring Redwood Meadows residents who had ignored evacuation orders were sandbagging in the rain beside the soccer pitch, when they heard the sound of a helicopter and then saw the searchlight circle before it landed in the field beside them. Three people got out quickly, and were left huddling in the rain as the helicopter took off on another rescue mission to West Bragg Creek.

They had no further instructions, there was no one sent to meet them, and for all intents and purposes, they looked like refugees from a war zone.

The Redwood sandbaggers rushed over in the dark to gather the evacuees and take them into their homes. With no utilities, fires were lit, blankets wrapped around visitors, and camp stoves were used to make coffee.

It was just one of many examples of neighbours helping neighbours – thinking of others in the midst of a crisis.

Breakey and her husband live high on a hill in West Bragg Creek, so they suffered no direct flood damage. They had to spend one night in a Calgary hotel, but were back helping out people in the hamlet recover the next day.

One of the more harrowing moments happened as Breakey was walking down Whyte Ave., following a dog.

“All of a sudden the dog just disappeared – the pavement collapsed,” she said.

She turned around, went back to the community centre, and fashioned a sign out of a piece of cardboard asking people to “Come help.”

It worked – people stopped in droves.

“We just did what we could,” she said. “It was amazing how everyone rallied.”

They had a house full of people from the hamlet living with them for a couple of weeks, along with a group of boy scouts from Pincher Creek who had arrived to help.

Breakey called workers from the construction company who were working in the hamlet “heroic” in the way they helped out with their heavy equipment even as the water threatened to wash them away.

She said in retrospect, (although no one could appreciate it then) there was a silver lining in the fact that the river breached its banks in Bragg Creek, because if it hadn’t, their neighbours downstream would surely have taken the brunt of the blow.

As it so happened, the river came up to within a few inches of the top of the most critical section of the berm in Redwood Meadows.

After a day of continuously placing large boulders underwater at the base of the berm in Redwood, a partial collapse of the dyke almost tipped the excavator into the rushing water.

The sandbaggers ran, as it became obvious their efforts weren’t going to make any difference if the dyke blew.

Had it not stopped raining (and had Bragg Creek not taken some of the pressure off) the river would have taken a new course, right through the townsite of Redwood Meadows. With the sheer volume and speed of water involved, and the lay of the land, it’s likely the whole townsite would have been destroyed.

Sharing stories

Current Rock View County councillor for the Bragg Creek area Kevin Hanson said he’s heard many accounts of how the community stepped up to the challenges in 2013.

Hanson is holding an open house at Bragg Creek's community centre on the 10th anniversary of the flood, on June 21 from 6 to 8 pm, where people will be welcome to share stories.

Doug Sephton has spent hours – years, really – sharing stories with Bragg Creek residents during and after the flood. He has owned and operated, a website devoted to all things Bragg Creek for 20 years. The site provides a guide to working, playing and living in the picturesque wooded community.

“Bragg Creek is a resilient community recovering from a devastating natural disaster,” he said. “I think we’re back, from what I can see around the hamlet.”

Despite the recovery, he admitted the character of the hamlet has undeniably changed – there’s not as many gift shops, for example. But a couple of new restaurants have taken their place. He cited the Handle-Bar café in Bragg Creek as a new business that’s doing well.

The Handle-Bar is a combination café and outdoor adventure store offering day and multi-day guided hiking, biking, skiing, and snow adventures for all skill levels. It’s geared to those who are not "extreme athletes" already.

Sephton said in talking to residents, he heard they were not satisfied with the Disaster Recovery Program offered by the province.

“No, not even almost,” he said.

Part of that program involved offers from the province to buy out landowners on the floodplain, with the caveat that it was a one-time offer, and that there would be no future flood recovery funding.

“The province said next time this happens, you’re going to get wiped out,” he said.

Apparently, there are those who are willing to live with the risk. The people Sephton talked to all turned down the buy-out offer.

“They said, ‘No, I’m pretty happy living on the river, and I don’t want to sell my house,’” he said.

Floating a proposal

Overall, Breakey called the flood a learning experience, and remains positive about the future, recognizing that the past 10 years have been “strange.”

The hamlet now has new water treatment and wastewater treatment plants, and a $42 million dollar flood mitigation project was recently completed along the banks of the Elbow River.

She was non-committal when asked if locals felt safer now that the mitigation work is done.

“To some extent, yes, but there’s also considerably fewer people there,” she said. “Many people just left town.”

She said the population of Bragg Creek was about 600 permanent residents before 2013, went to 400 after the flood, and now is about 200.

“It’s almost insignificant – a lot of the homes are gone,” she said.

The only development on the horizon – perhaps ironically – is being spearheaded by the man who watched his house float away on TV back in 2013.

Koetsier’s Gateway Developments is promoting the Gateway Village concept, approved by Rocky View County in 2021. Once built, the proposed 12.6-acre (6.3 hectare) project will feature a 120-room boutique hotel, housing, and an amphitheatre.

Breakey is hopeful Gateway will go forward, along with a new seniors lodge that has been in the works for a few years.

Hers is a perspective shared by those who chose to stay in Bragg Creek after the flood.

“We have a great opportunity to move forward here,” she said.

Howard May

About the Author: Howard May

Howard was a journalist with the Calgary Herald and with the Abbotsford Times in BC, where he won a BC/Yukon Community Newspaper Association award for best outdoor writing.
Read more


push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks