CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - By last Friday morning in Canada’s oil capital, the scope of the disaster facing Calgary was becoming clear, and the reputation of the city’s first-term mayor was rising along with the floodwaters.
As the two rivers in the city of 1.1 million reached new heights in the worst flooding the province of Alberta has ever seen, a growing list of neighborhoods were evacuated and the downtown home to Canada’s largest oil companies was shut down as electrical substations failed.
In the chaos, Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim elected to the office in a major North American city, was a ubiquitous presence - at media briefings, on Twitter, updating the status of city services, reminding Calgarians to stay safe and praising emergency workers. His well-timed jokes lightened the mood.
It was disaster management reminiscent, albeit on a smaller scale, of other North American politicians like New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the September 11 attacks and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the wake of Hurricane Sandy whose images were burnished by their performances in crises.
“As mayor (in these floods) I have three jobs,” the 41-year-old Nenshi told Reuters in an interview sandwiched between media briefings, tours of damaged neighborhoods and visits to thank the city’s thousands of volunteers.
“No. 1 is to make sure citizens have a lot of information on how to keep themselves safe. No. 2 is provide encouragement and resources to the real heroes. And No. 3 is to get out of the way and let people do their work. That’s what I have been trying to do since the whole thing started.”
The economic cost of the floods will likely reach into the billions. But Nenshi’s response has won him the sort of national acclaim that eludes other big-city Canadian mayors these days.
Toronto’s Rob Ford is under fire after two media outlets said they had seen a video that appeared to show him smoking crack cocaine (he says he does not smoke crack), while Montreal’s Michael Applebaum has stepped down to fight charges of corruption.
“Mr. Nenshi has been such a superbly effective leader during the flood that has devastated his city and other Alberta communities that he appears on his way to folk-hero status,” the Globe and Mail newspaper said in an editorial on Monday.
‘I MUST LOOK TERRIBLE’
Even as the floodwaters rose, Nenshi maintained the Twitter presence that helped the left-leaning candidate win a surprise 2010 election victory in a city best known for sending conservatives to provincial and federal office. He is running for re-election this year, with little serious opposition.
But Nenshi says Calgary voters are not interested in ideology.
“We are a true meritocracy. Nobody in Calgary cares who your daddy was, what you look like or where you went to school,” he said. “They only care about what you bring to the table and how hard you work. This boring characterization of black, white, red, blue - I don’t think it has any bearing on people’s choices. People just want folks who do a good job.”
Before he was elected, Nenshi was a civic activist and business professor at Mount Royal University, known for being a frequent critic of Calgary’s fractious City Council. Born in Toronto, he was raised in Calgary by parents who emigrated from Tanzania. As mayor, he earns about C$200,000 and donates 10 percent of it to charity.
He was a dark-horse challenger in the 2010 race for Calgary mayor - experts thought a long-serving councilor with conservative leanings had the election locked up.
Nenshi ran a grassroots campaign on a limited budget that harnessed Twitter and other social media. Starting out as an outsider, his support surged in the final weeks of the campaign.
Even before the crisis, ThinkHQ opinion research firm put Nenshi’s approval ratings at 73 percent, down from an almost 88 percent as the city debated what to do with a tax refund from the provincial government.
It is the sort of number that often tempts local politicians to aim for higher office. But Nenshi said he had no ambitions to vie for another job.
“I have the best job in Canada, plus I can never remember what it is the federal government does,” he said. “Or I should say they send in the army to help when you have flooding, for which we are very grateful.”
His relentless pace and increasingly haggard appearance after round-the-clock briefings spawned the Twitter tag #nap4nenshi, which includes pictures of “Supernenshi”, with his chubby face Photoshopped onto a picture of Superman.
“Everybody asks me the question about how much sleep I have had, which means I must look terrible,” Nenshi said.
Editing by Janet Guttsman, Mary Milliken and Leslie Gevirtz