COVER

Diary of a river battle

May 12 1997
COVER

Diary of a river battle

May 12 1997

Diary of a river battle

For the past three years, Winnipeg novelist Margaret Sweatman (Fox) and composer Glenn Buhr have been living near St. Norbert, three kilometres south of the Floodway. Sweatman worked on the top floor of their three-storey home, Buhr on the bottom level, and the rest was shared with their six children—two hers and four his, from previous marriages. Last spring, in what Sweatman, 43, now calls “The Toy Flood, ” they lost their road for two weeks and had to commute in by boat. And until the blizzard of early April, they were preparing for a similar experience. On April 25, after fighting to remain on their property, they were forced to evacuate. Here is Sweatman’s story, which she told to Maclean’s Assistant Managing Editor Ann Dowsett Johnston:

The Toy Flood of ’96 seemed disruptive at the time, but we look back on it fondly now. We built a three-foot dike around the house, we lost our water, and we lost road access. It all seemed so depressing because we couldn’t live with our children for about a month: their other parents’ houses were still safe. But in retrospect, it was a real picnic. And it would have been another toy ■ flood except for the blizzard. We had been starting to get ready: buying three new pumps, and beginning to dike, putting up poly and plywood. We worked intensely, thinking: “Well, we watched Edwardian videos last flood, what will it be this year?” After the blizzard, we knew we were in serious trouble. We started hiring movers and ordering a hell of a lot of sand. Last year, we put

up about 4,000 sandbags and we were preparing to put up 8,000. I believe what’s around our house—or swamping into our livingroom right now—is 20,000 sandbags. Crews of people we barely knew were spending entire days with us. St. Paul’s High School and St. Mary’s Academy were sending us entire grades.

But when the school kids arrived on Wednesday [April 23], the road was no longer passable by vehicle. Suddenly, we were trying to supply them with socks, and it wasn’t fun any more. The kids had been flirting and listening to music and working their heads off, but that Wednesday was cold. By 1 o’clock, we had to get them out: even though they’d walked across the road and gotten wet at 9, by 11 they couldn’t walk back. I found myself standing at the end of the road screaming at them, telling them they mustn’t try and walk. Suddenly, we had army trucks in our driveway and the kids were loaded on to leave. That evening, my parents left in a carrier as well, carrying our budgie. An army guy said to them: “You can’t bring a budgie.” My dad said: “This bird is going with us.” The fun was over.

It’s very odd inside a ring dike. You don’t need that much sleep, and you don’t give a damn about anything else. For hours you stare at Manitoba gumbo with water flowing in from under your dike and all these little white worms and a gazillion beetles. And that becomes all you want to do. I just wanted to stand in that mud, wearing wet gloves, watching the worms. I could deal with that.

By Thursday, Glenn and I were left alone. We tried to get a load of water in because we were still under the illusion that if we had a full cistern and a great big dike and enough pumps, we would ride it out. We spent much of the day wrapping the dike in poly, just like icing a beautiful cake. My brother Wynn came out with the army, bringing us two more sump pumps, more hose and more electrical cord. We had to somehow get a sewage pump going to handle the backflow. We stopped sleeping: the sump pump needed 24-hour monitoring. You’d go out at night, bundled up in wet clothes, shining a flashlight to see whether you had to trigger the sump pump— surrounded by a three-foot wall of water. It started to get eerie.

it's odd inside a ring dike. You don't need sleep.'

By Friday evening, we were running on no sleep. I was drinking coffee and scotch and monitoring the pumps alone. Glenn had gone to help our neighbor Kent load stuff on his roof because his house was going under. Our local councillor, Gord Maconnel, arrived with a police officer and the army, in a dinghy. They were treating us like feral cats by that time and I guess I looked like one. But I tried to appear calm: I wanted him to leave quickly because one of our sumps was about to back up behind me. So I stood peering over the dike like that guy on Home Improvement, saying, ‘We’re just

fine. Glenn is out right now”—as if Glenn were just off playing tennis.

Maconnel tried to trick me: “How long do you plan on staying?” I mumbled something like: “We’ll stay as long as it’s OK.” He handed me a notice that said: “If you don’t get out by 8 o’clock tonight, we’re coming back tomorrow and hauling you out.” So I started lying. ‘We have a gas pump and a generator and everything is under control here.” And then I began bargaining: “Give us the weekend because all we need is one more pump and everything is going to be OK.” We thought if we had one more pump we could make it.

Right up until Saturday morning, we were concerned about our basement. But it was clear our sumps weren’t making it: the circuitry was starting to bang out. Glenn left in the boat to pick up this magnificent sewage pump and yet more cords so that we could distribute the power to the upstairs. And then I heard a clicking sound outside: I thought it was a fuse. I went around the back of the house and the dike had broken and the water started just pouring in from the river side. I started rushing everything to the second floor. Once a decent refuge, it was now covered in wet pumps.

Glenn got back by boat and we started to drink scotch and move whatever else we could. We were watching water fill all our sump pump holes and then rise up the basement stairs. We were both wearing life jackets by now and just moving as fast as we could. I realized that the water was going to be up to my chest in our livingroom within half an hour, so I was moving glasses up to the second

shelf. We just wanted to make it out before the water ripped off our back deck, where the boat was tied.

At noon, only a week after we started diking, we jumped in the boat, drove around our house once and then down our street, sort of toasting each other and crying, of course. My brother came and got us, and as we were being driven to my parents’ house, still wearing our life jackets, we felt like failures. I continually think of what we might have done to have made that house more secure.

God knows if we’ll make it out of this financially. Of course, there’s no flood insurance. Last year, the Manitoba Disaster Assistance Board helped us recoup some of our losses—thousands of dollars on pumps and so on. Yesterday, we had to go to the Red Cross to register for assistance. I did get some food vouchers because it’s a little bit hard to make a living at the moment. Glenn said sort of idly: “Margaret doesn’t have any shoes.” I was wearing rubber boots when we got out. They gave me a $15 voucher, which I don’t think I’ll use.

Apparently, water has now surrounded the St. Norbert Arts and

Cultural Centre, an old monastery, which was to be our refuge. Glenn is organizing a music series there, and I teach creative writing. They had given us wonderful places to go and work—studios and a bedroom. Now, they’ve evacuated that, too. Our refuge is gone.

The next six months are going to be intensely difficult. Glenn and I are with my kids in my parents’ basement for now, and Glenn’s kids are with their mother. But we’re not sure how long either of the other parents’ houses will be safe. My ex-husband’s house is particularly vulnerable because it’s outside the Floodway—and my kids are holding on to the fact they still have one more house. We had been planning to get married on July 12, but we’ll have to postpone it so that we can celebrate properly.

On Thursday, I tried to get back down to see my home. A belligerent cop at the junction of the perimeter and Pembina Highway said: “Back!” So we drove west. Finally, a nice cop quietly waved us in to the abandoned areas of St. Norbert, which looked like a movie set. There were a hundred trucks full of mud, and toothless drivers laughing at us: the road had become a mud dike about six feet high. We then headed south, as if we were on the way home. The police were all over us, but they gave us a couple of minutes to climb the mud dike. We did, and the water was right at our feet, level with the top of the mud wall. It really shook me up. I was two kilometres from our home and I was looking down on a lake. Until then, I had been kind of nostalgic for the fight. I had kind of lulled myself into thinking that we could be pumping out our basement in a month. But there’s so much water.

In the meantime. I’ve been watching the news and I’ve seen people coming out looking just like we did. We know they had brandy for breakfast and they haven’t slept since March. And they’re still sane. There’s a million stories like ours in the Naked City—way more houses jeopardized and lives disrupted than expected. It gives you a kind of seasickness. Obviously, there will be cleanup and repair, and we’ll be fine. But right now, there’s a lot of loss, a lot of fear, a lot of grief. □