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'Worst not over,' Manitoba tells those in flood zone

Last Updated: Saturday, April 18, 2009 | 4:27 PM CT

Railcars parked in the flood zone between Winnipeg and the U.S. border.Railcars parked in the flood zone between Winnipeg and the U.S. border. (CBC)

The Red River has become a 750-square-kilometre lake forcing almost 2,000 people from their homes and the flood threat is far from over, Manitoba government officials said Saturday.

"This is not the beginning. It's certainly not the end. We're right in the middle of it," said Steve Ashton, Manitoba's minister responsible for emergency measures.

Water levels across southern Manitoba are declining extremely slowly, officials said, and there could be several crests on the Red River, currently swollen to 19 kilometres wide in some places.

Nearly 2,000 southern Manitobans have been forced from their homes because of flooding.

Provincial officials said about 777 square kilometres of the Red River Valley is under water.

About 300 properties have been damaged, including about 100 homes at the Peguis First Nation north of Winnipeg which were inundated by the Fisher River in Manitoba's Interlake region.

"Clearly the crest has not hit fully in the Red River Valley and it's important we don't let our guards down," said Ashton. Officials remain concerned about the Souris River in southwestern Manitoba, as well as the Pembina River, which wanders southward into North Dakota and could still cause significant flooding along the Canada-U.S. boundary.

"We are clearly in the middle of major floods," said Ashton. "Please don't assume that the worst is over. Let's maintain our readiness. We're definitely not sounding the all-clear signal yet."

Manitoba's senior flood forecaster Alf Warkentin said the region will see river levels increasing over the next few days and not receding for several weeks. It took one week for the crest of the Red River to pass through the town of Emerson, at the Canada-U.S. border, Warkentin noted.

Put one foot in front of the other

While vulnerable towns are protected by dikes, the overflowing Red River and its tributaries — the Rat River, Morris River, Roseau River, Seine River, LaSalle River — have surrounded some rural properties.

Bridgette Parkes lives near St. Adolphe where her house is surrounded by water. While her home suffered $200,000 damage in the flood of 1997, so far this year the clay dike surrounding the property is holding.

But she was forced to walk 25 minutes in hip-deep water to bring groceries to the house.

"It was really cold — and slow going," she said. "You're kind of watching the water as it moves and you get mesmerized trying to stay between the markers on the road and trying to stay in the middle of the road where you think the road is. And you know it's slow. You just put one foot in front of the other and make sure it's planted before you carry on."

And right across southern Manitoba other rivers and streams, including the Pembina River, the Souris River and the Icelandic River, are swollen and running fast due to saturated groundwater from last autumn, heavy winter snows and an unusual freeze-thaw cycle this spring.

A ring dike protects the town of Morris, about 70 kilometres south of Winnipeg. But Highway 75, which connects the town to Winnipeg and the U.S. border, remains washed out and looks like a lake. Those who live outside protected areas must use boats to get to dry land. Inside the town, behind the dikes, there is confidence.

But Morris Mayor Dale Hoffman said the province's main thoroughfare between Winnipeg and the U.S. border is submerged under several metres of water. That seems at odds with the millions of taxpayer dollars committed just last week to construction of an inland port and transport hub at Winnipeg.

"For the sake of all of Manitoba we have to do something with Highway 75," Hoffman said. "We have to get that out of the flood waters, higher than what it is right now. Or build a proper detour on the west side of the community or the east side in order to facilitate traffic for all of Manitoba. That is our primary concern right now."

Colin Harbinson, fire chief for the town of Morris, said crews have had to come to the rescue of at least three stranded boats in the past week.

"If you are coming to town — and we welcome you, but — please call ahead, let someone know that you're coming," he said. "Let us know the approximate time that you're expecting to be on the water so that if you don't show up or go missing that we can have a quick response and come to your assistance if required."

Dreams are being shattered

And outside the ring dikes, on isolated farmsteads and homes, some people are tired and frustrated and thinking it's time to move. Just south of Winnipeg, Barb Stewart lives near the Red. She and her neighbours are upset because they say the province is changing the rules on when to use the Red River Floodway. Every time the floodway is activated to divert water around Winnipeg, their area gets flooded.

Stewart said her family can't go on like this for much longer.

"There's a physical fitness level required to deal with flood … climbing up and down ladders to get behind a dike," she noted. "Things have to change. People's dreams are being shattered; it's not the retirement community we once thought we'd have.

"We wouldn't have made the decision to rebuild had we known [after the record 1997 flood] what we know now," she said. "I think you'll start seeing a depopulation of this area after this flood."

Flood forecasters say there will be several more weeks of high water, washed-out roads and fields being turned into lakes across southern Manitoba. And that, everyone agrees, will have a tremendous economic impact on the region.

With files from The Canadian Press
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