A roar of applause greets Mayor Naheed Nenshi as he ambles up upon a riser above thousands of Calgarians gathered in a stadium parking lot to volunteer with flood relief efforts.
With a microphone clutched in his hand and some much-needed sun shining at his back, Nenshi looks like a rock star — a term more than a few people have used to describe him this week.
“This is Calgary, folks. This is the spirit of this community,” he tells the crowd, prompting more applause.
Nenshi, Calgary’s mayor since 2010, has been leading in the public eye since the flood struck. His week has been a blur of press briefings (over 11) and interviews (dozens), private events with emergency personnel and public visits to flood-struck zones. You can follow most of the action on Nenshi’s popular Twitter account.
On Monday, Nenshi was obviously excited as he surveyed the parking lot of McMahon Stadium, where the CFL’s Stampeders play. Over 2,000 people turned out for the event that Nenshi was worried would only draw 50. There were actually too many volunteers to put to work. Many signed up to help city efforts in the coming weeks.
That didn't seem to bother the volunteers who lined up to hug Nenshi inside the volunteer tent.
“This is re-energizing me,” Nenshi said, after embracing one Calgarian.
After a few minutes he left the tent, reluctantly opting for high-fives instead of hugs as he made his way through the crowd. As he got into a white SUV headed for the Calgary’s Emergency Operations Centre he was all smiles — calling “shotgun” with boyish delight.
An hour later he was all business again, holding a lengthy news conference about the latest developments in Calgary’s flood-ravaged downtown.
Nenshi goes out of the way to praise his staff at every chance — from the city workers desperately trying to drain flooded streets, to police and fire officials, to the inspectors who have to make the unenviable decision whether people can get back into their homes.
“They’re the ones doing the hard work,” Nenshi told CBC News. “So I have to keep going.”
Nenshi says he has three jobs.
The most important is to give people the information they need to stay safe. On Sunday that meant tearing into people who attempted to canoe on the swollen Bow River. More commonly, that advice is about road closures and damaged infrastructure that should be avoided.
His second job may be what he’s best at — giving hope and courage to people affected by the floods.
“We're heading into tough times,” Nenshi said. “As people get into their homes and their home is in trouble, people will feel despair… we have to lift them up with our love and support.”
His third job? Staying out of the way as relief efforts continue.
Daorcey Le Bray, Nenshi’s communications advisor, calls the mayor’s schedule “intense and flexible.”
“We’re always weighing where he needs to be,” Le Bray said, adding the mayor does most of his flood tours at night to avoid getting in the way of cleanup efforts.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Nenshi detractor in Calgary these days — some polls suggest his approval rating is over 70 per cent — which is especially good as he heads into this year’s municipal election.
His ability to communicate with Calgarians is obvious at the volunteer event.
“You’re the man, Nenshi,” one volunteer said as he approached to shake the mayor’s hand.
“I just want to thank you for the way you’ve represented our city,” said another.
Nenshi read the crowd well. With some people he whispered, perhaps sharing a secret or two. He posed for photos with almost everyone. And with some, he’s quick with a joke. “I went to bed last night and the water went down… maybe I should sleep more,” he said, a reference to the limited rest he’s had during the flood.
Donn Lovett, a political consultant and "frequent antagonist" of the mayor said Nenshi "Gets an A-plus," for his handling of the flood.
"I was pleasantly surprised," Lovett said. "I didn't know how he would perform under pressure."
Politically, Lovett said, nobody could beat Nenshi before the flood. Now, he said, nobody should even bother running.
Later, at the Emergency Operations Centre, Nenshi bounces between two television cameras, doing interviews for three different shows. It’s the first time that day he’s had to do one-on-one interviews.
Maryjane Bridges-Selk and her five-year-old daughter Anna look on from the sidewalk.
Once he’s free of microphones, Nenshi comes over and kneels down to Anna’s height. She hands him a hand-drawn card featuring a picture of Pete the Cat, the main character in a book Nenshi read to her class a while ago.
Inside, it reads: “Dear Mayor Nenshi, thank you for keeping Calgary strong!”
Nenshi is clearly touched.
“My heart is full,” he tells the next interviewer.