It was 5:30 a.m. on a spring morning when her mother shook 11-year-old Alice Ritchot and whispered urgently: “The water is rolling across the fields. We must hurry and dress and take the canoe.” It was 1950.
It is 1979 and Alice Ritchot scarcely has time to recall that journey by canoe to the railway and to six weeks of exile from Morris in Manitoba’s Red River Valley. She is busy organizing the kitchen at Royal Canadian Legion Branch 111, as she has been for a week, serving up an endless supply of soup, sandwiches, roast beef and meatballs (now dubbed mudballs) to the 250 men remaining in the town. Breakfast begins at 5:30 a.m. and supper ends at 8 p.m. Coffee and cookies never end. Of the town’s normal population of 1,700 only 273 are left—all accounted for on computerized lists in Winnipeg, should the worst happen.
On the legion wall a chart shows the flood levels of 1966 and 1950, when the waters rose to 781.7 feet above sea level. This time they’re expected to exceed that by one foot. Above the 786-foot mark on the chart a wag has scrawled “Swim Like Hell.”
It seemed last week that 1979 had become the year of
the angry spring. From Dawson City, almost on the Alaska border, where the turbulent Yukon suddenly burst its banks and swamped downtown streets seven feet deep, to New Brunswick, where the St. John staged one of its flashier surges and drove more than 350 Frederictoners from their homes, spring was flooding out all over. In Quebec’s Gaspé peninsula no fewer than 17
municipalities were hit when heavier than average snowmelts turned freshets into torrents. Sandbagging became a back-bending, new athletic challenge even in the capital, where the swollen Ottawa threatened low-lying parts of that city and neighboring Hull, Quebec. The area perhaps most fiercely struck was Ontario’s bush and mining country around Field and Sturgeon Falls (see story page 20 ), northwest of North Bay. But the winner and still champion without any argument was the Red River, beginning 500 miles south of Winnipeg, then gathering and swelling and spreading until it turned the intersection of North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba into a silently rising inland sea. It was all the fault of the long hard winter that gripped a good part of the continent, followed by unseemly deluges of rain. The thousands of bedraggled and exhausted Canadians who were its immediate victims were by this week beginning to weather the flood, but they would not soon forget the soggy spring of ’79.
In the Morris municipal offices a weary Jack Murray, 46-year-old mayor and owner of its department store, puffs on his pipe and surveys his ghost town. It sits in splendid isolation behind a ring dike 5V2 miles in circumference that he says will hold.
“I’m the only mayor in Canada who’s typhoid-proof,” he says. “In 1950 they inoculated me five times even though I kept telling them I’d had a shot. If the bacillus ever sets eyes on me it’ll drop dead from fright.” This is his fifth
flood in Morris. Like the colonel who urged his troops to trust in God but keep their powder dry, Murray and his volunteers are leaving nothing to chance. There must be no repetition of 1950 when Main Street lay under five feet of water.
The ring dike, a sloping wall of compressed prairie gumbo scraped and hauled and shoved into place by roaring bulldozers, was built in 1967. It can handle flood waters 784 feet above sea level when the warning comes and the dozers are summoned again to close the gaps where highway and railway slice through the perimeter wall. For more than a week men from the water resources department have been hastily piling on mud and sandbags to raise the dike another two feet. Morris is a town under siege, an island in what Murray proudly notes is now officially the third largest lake in Manitoba: Lake Morris. Ironically, Murray’s parents came to Morris in 1937 to escape the drought of Wolseley, Saskatchewan. He has been flood-fighting ever since and even met hiswife,Ruth,when she helped him shift dry goods to the top of the store in 1966. One man has phoned him to say he’s glad the flood of ’79 will exceed that of 1950 by a foot or two. “He was getting tired of stories about the ’50 flood.”
Down the disinfectant-reeking hall of the brick municipal building is the Emergency Measures Office, housed in what normally is the council chamber. A portrait of the Queen surveys banks of telephones, charts, maps, daily crest revisions and weather forecasts. All is
orderly, efficient, expectant.
In the legion hall Pat Jorgenson, wife of the local MLA, is washing dishes and the female kitchen staff, all volunteers, is trying to cheer up the flood-fatigued men who haven’t seen their families for up to two weeks. “People don’t seem to be worried but I think they pray silently to themselves,” says Alice Ritchot, ladling soup. “I’m sure the ring dike will hold or they wouldn’t let us stay here.”
Within the dike, 14 deer have found
refuge, having swum through the encroaching lake. There are rabbits and skunks too, cagily encamped near the town’s road, foraging where they can.
“If the worst happened,” says Mayor Murray soberly, “everybody that’s left could be evacuated in one hour by motorboat and helicopter. Also, you’d have to raise your feet or they’d get wet where they are now.” His office sits several feet above the almost deserted main street. The marquee over a motel says simply PLEASE LORD and says everything. The river’s crest is expected in three days and the sandbagging is almost finished. Now there is only
the maintenance and the waiting.
All the hopes and fears of Morris rest on the ugly gumbo dike that crosses Main Street by the Morris Beauty Parlor. On one side sits the town, on the other a submerged road with water lapping only feet from the top of a traffic light. A sandpiper pecks at the scum of garbage caressing the mud walls.
While the battle of the sandbags goes enthusiastically on there is little time or energy for casting blame, but later there will be many scapegoats: the water resource people, the politicians, the Canadian Wheat Board, the railways, even God. A few honestly blame themselves. Everyone is resolved, however, that this time something must be done for the little towns like Morris, as it was for Winnipeg after the 1950 flood, though it took 18 years before the Red River Floodway was completed to the jeers of cynics. The $63-million ditch, pipe dream of then-premier Duff Roblin, diverts the engorged Red around the city, ensuring no repetition of the 1950 swamping when a sixth of the city went under the crest, more than 30 feet above normal winter flows. Though the Red was expected to peak two feet above that again this year, the city flow will be a mere 21 feet above normal, thanks to Duff’s Ditch. “Sure, people are thanking me now for the floodway,” says Roblin, today a senator and president of his own security firm. “But when we built it the experts predicted it would be a century before we saw another flood like 1950.”
Beyond the ring-diked towns like Morris, Emerson, St. Jean Baptiste, St.
Adolphe, Rosenort and Letellier the covetous Red laps at farmhouse windows, granaries and barns. It is slow, silent and surreptitious, but 7,000 have fled before it, snatching what they can before it’s too late. Helicopters float overhead like noisy bubbles, cameras poking down through windows at the watery desolation. Livestock transporter Albert Duval pilots his big truck with the greatest of care along a soggy rural road 3xk feet deep in water, helping haul one farmer’s 860 cattle to safety (and slaughter) in Winnipeg. He has been at it for days, knowing that one wheel over the edge will plunge his truck into a ditch 15 feet deep in water. Across the vast flooded wasteland, last efforts are being made to move 100,000 head of livestock to safety including 3,000 beef cattle, 8,000 pigs and 75,000 chickens. The frantic effort is almost pointless for Dick Heinrichs of Rose-
nort, whose 17,000 laying hens will die if moved. Already the creeping waters have drowned 700 of them. At Glenlea Research Farm, operated by the University of Manitoba 15 miles south of Winnipeg, mass evacuation is underway for hundreds of cattle, pigs and sheep to the sports stadium on the city campus. Were the farm to be inundated, purebred genealogies would be destroyed and priceless research ruined.
Reeve Albert St. Hilaire of St. Jean Baptiste is praying that the northwest winds will stop whipping waves against his town’s puny dike and is urging farmers to stop risking their lives by boating sandbags over the choppy waters. Outside the yellow stone church of St. Jean Baptiste, khaki-clad members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry pause from sandbagging to share cigarettes with teen-age volun-
teers. St. Jean Baptiste has become a ghost town, most of the 700 population fled.
Will the dikes hold? In the backyard of a house on Marion Street a small crowd has gathered, staring numbly at a spouting geyser. Two leaks have been surrounded by sandbags and pumps pour water back over the dikes.
“I just wish it were oil,” laughs Antoinette Marion, 54, whose son Gilles owns the house. A joker poses with his finger in the hole. This leak comes through a culvert blocked off and abandoned in 1940. The town had forgotten, but not the relentless river. So the enemy is in the camp again. The army will be called, another wound bandaged.
Back in Morris, Reine Bebrowksi, coowner of Power-Matic Industries Ltd., is hoarse, his telephone hot. He is 54, tired and worried. Normally he and 15 employees spend the winter turning out grain augurs and harrow sections for market. This is the height of his selling season, he has $500,000 worth of orders but a prairie sea blocks his way to market. In the 1966 flood when his business was outside the dikes he lost $70,000. After 45 years and four floods he can’t understand why an all-weather road hasn’t been built or permanent dikes.
Morris school-bus driver and Public Works Chairman Dan Lohr, ferrying visiting sandbaggers and reporters up and down Main Street, casts a scornful glance at a boarded-up store: “Hah. They don’t believe our dikes will hold, but they’ll see. I haven’t raised a single thing from my basement.” Nor has Mayor Murray or other stalwarts, as if by sheer defiance and force of will they might keep the waters back, however greedily they lick at the dikes. Dan Lohr points to a house beyond the dike: “In the 1948 flood that was the only house with running water.” And, deadpan: “It went in the front door and out the back.”
In flood-free Winnipeg, athletic coaches complain in the sports pages about the cancellation of events scheduled for the stadium-turned-ark. Authorities forecast a bumper crop of flies and mosquitoes to follow the flood, and the aftermath may well prove more frustrating than the slow-motion deluge itself. For while the crest as it moves up the valley is mercifully lower than first predictions, all signs are that Lake Morris may not begin noticeably to recede for a fortnight or more. As she and her husband, Lionel, wait to head back for the farm near St. Jean from which they have been flooded out four times since 1948, Antoinette Marion is saying that floods bring out the best in people but that it’s a pity you need floods to do that.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.