New book to revisit extreme weather in the Prairies

Moose Jaw’s 1974 flood to feature alongside gales, blazes, and blizzards

If there is one thing that Prairie people can do, it’s talk about the weather.

Perhaps more so than nearly anywhere else in Canada, a massive bulk of the population sees their livelihoods rise and fall with the weather, and if they are not directly involved in agriculture, they are likely tied to someone who is.

“The Prairies are so unique. There are parts of the world with very even weather patterns and that can be very predictable,” said author of Wild Weather on the Prairies, Monica Zurowski last week. “But in the Prairies, you can go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, and I think those of us who live on the Prairies know there’s something unique about Prairie weather, and what we endure or enjoy, depending on the time of year.”

The book, a compilation of photos from Postmedia papers over the past 130 years, captures some of the most dramatic events — not only in terms of weather — but in terms of communities coming together.

“In some ways they’re low-lights, they’re catastrophes, because these weather events can lead to loss of life, loss of crops, and loss of livelihood, but at the same time, when these horrible weather events are hitting these Prairie communities, without fail, the community gathers around like nothing anyone has ever seen before,” said Zurowski. “It’s a way that Prairie people always support each other.”

While there is some discussion of pre-contact First Nations oral traditions of great floods, the author relied primarily on recorded weather patterns that began in the 1800s when settlers began taking over the plains in earnest. The stories of the greatest weather calamities are told mainly through photos, but some of the earlier events are by necessity described in print, as photography was still in its infancy and hardly ready for the hazards and havoc of a major disaster.

The same could not be said for Moose Jaw’s most memorable entry in the ledger. The flood of 1974 was indeed photographed and recorded, as it forced 80 per cent of the population to evacuate and saw nearly 500 homes surrounded by water. In some areas, the water rose as high as the tops of the telephone poles, said Zurowski.

Moose Jaw’s Harold Claffey has no need for photos to remember where he was when the waters began to rise. He was a taxi driver, living on Ninth Avenue, and said the water came up as high as Ominica Street.

“We were kind of worried,” he said, “because we didn’t have communications like we do now. We heard a lot of things, like the water was going to rise another eight inches, but we didn’t know if it was true, it was just what we heard.”

At the time, the taxi company operated out of the old CPR station. Claffey remembers an electrician sent to make sure the station was safe, who deemed that it was before leaving for a bit. When he came back, the water was four inches below the main electrical panel.

“It would have blown sky-high,” said Claffey. “The whole place would have just been destroyed.”

There is something about severe weather events that stick in our minds. Wild Weather on the Prairies came about as a result of another book Postmedia put together about the 2013 flood in southern Alberta. Zurowski herself was one of the 100,000 residents evacuated and, although she did not suffer great loss of property herself, gained a new perspective on the surprising impermanence of material surroundings. Hailing from Saskatchewan, she also remembered being a small child in the floods of the 1970s.

“It’s scary, it’s frightening, it’s the first time as a child that you realize your parents can’t protect you from everything, and that Mother Nature is out there,” she said. “The book isn’t scary that way, but it’s those kinds of things that get you thinking.”

She recalled the scene when Lumsden was threatened and her father, a schoolteacher, did his part to help save the town.

“I remember, my sister and I, we were kids in the back seat of the car. Mum drove out there so dad could rest, we went out to Lumsden and dropped him off, and he filled sandbags all night, as did thousands of other men from Regina. But I remember, it was just a very serious kind of thing that everybody had to help,” she said.

The dam had broken, and so an artificial dyke had been created using smashed up old cars and sandbags and whatever else the community could spare.

“I have this really vivid memory of how Dad had to do his part, as did every individual in Saskatchewan, in the Lumsden area, and it really stuck with me, how the weather is one of the worst things that can happen to a community, but it can bring out the best in people,” she said.

Considering how tied to the land Saskatchewan, and indeed all Prairie-provinces, residents are, it’s hardly surprising that data from Environment Canada shows the greatest number of web hits coming from this area, especially Winnipeg and Manitoba. With the rise of climate change, that trend isn’t likely to reverse anytime soon.

“In one essay, we do talk about how weather patterns do seem to be changing, and how there’s a growing number of scientists and researchers who are studying what is happening out there in terms of climate change,” Zurowski said. “What is happening out there? Are things different? The answer seems to be yes.”

While that could certainly mean more floods — not just in the Prairies, but around the globe as well, as evidenced by the current catastrophes in Houston, Texas, Bangladesh and Nepal — it may also mean a longer growing season. While that may be good for farmers, Zurowski pointed out that there are many unknowable consequences of such a shift, like the possible corresponding rise in insects that may hinder crops.

Whatever the future may bring, weather is something that will continue to be at the centre of many people’s lives in the Breadbasket of Canada. Without seeking to minimize the past, present or future impact of extreme weather events, it can be confidently stated that residents of this part of the world have a wealth of experience dealing with the whims of nature.

“I was blown away to see the extent of how Prairie people do pull themselves up out of the mud or the ashes or the water, and do the best they can. Nothing seems to get them down,” Zurowski said. “I think it’s a testament to people who live in the Prairies, they really look out for themselves, and they look out for each other. They’re not afraid of hard work, of whatever it might take to survive these weather events.”

Wild Weather on the Prairies hits shelves Sept. 23 and can be purchased through Post Horizon Booksellers in Moose Jaw.