I've cried two rivers'

DIANE TURBIDE October 6 1997

I've cried two rivers'

DIANE TURBIDE October 6 1997

I've cried two rivers'


Manitobans struggle to rebuild after the flood


Rosie Neufeld and her husband, Grant Schmidt, live in a trailer next to their damaged home and a contaminated well. “The water is undrinkable, bathing is unpleasant and just forget laundry,” she says. Mould is starting to grow again on the wood frame of their house in Grande Pointe—despite weeks of cleaning and disinfecting with pressure sprays. Most of their belongings, including an extensive collection of antiques, are damaged, some beyond repair. Victims of the great Red River flood of 1997, they spent most of the summer clearing mud and debris, cleaning and trying to flood-proof their barn. The couple’s horse-breeding business is at a standstill as they try to find boarding for their 25 horses for the winter. Hardest of all, says Neufeld, is the sense that they and others have been abandoned. “We’re living in Third World conditions on the edge of Winnipeg,” she told Maclean’s, “and nobody in power seems to care.”

At its height, last spring’s flood—the worst of the century—commanded the nation’s attention. As a 40-km-wide lake formed south of Winnipeg, threatening to overwhelm the provincial capital, nearly 28,000 people were evacuated from the fertile floodplain. People worked tirelessly to protect themselves and their neighbors against the rising waters, as public donations poured in from the rest of Canada. A spirit of camaraderie sustained those caught up in the natural disaster, but five months later, it has largely dissipated— at least for the nearly 1,000 people still unable to return to their homes. To some, Neufeld’s comments may seem extreme—one of the founders of the Winnipeg Folk Festival and a former TV celebrity, she is a vocal critic of Premier Gary Filmons provincial Tory government. But there is no doubt that many of those still displaced are grappling with fa-

tigue, financial woes and frustration over what they describe as a long wait for too little government money.

Among many flood victims, there is praise—for the Salvation Army, the Red Cross (which has distributed half of the $20 million it collected for flood relief), and for the frontline workers from the province’s Emergency Management Organization, the umbrella organization that has been providing relief services. Local municipal workers have also been showered with thanks. At the head office of the Ritchot rural municipality, which includes the worst-hit areas, bouquets of flowers and thank-you cards adorn the offices where municipal employees help their citizens find rental accommodations or check on the status of their claim.

But the claims process itself has given rise to a flood of complaints. As of the end of last week, the provincial government had received 4,661 aid applications and spent $33.5 million in direct assistance to individuals whose homes were damaged or destroyed. (Although Manitoba administers the program and distributes the money, 90 per cent of the funds come from federal coffers.) Flood victims can receive a maximum of $100,000 compensation, with a deductible of 20 per cent. That deductible is waived if the home is unsalvageable or if the homeowner participates in a separate program aimed at flood-proofing homes in the Red River Valley.

It seems straightforward, but applicants complain of inadequate compensation—so far, the government has paid out an average of $7,036 per applicant—long delays in getting cheques, incomplete information and too much paperwork. Hardest, they say, is the fact that people are required to spend or borrow most of the upfront money needed to pay contractors, and then submit bills for reimbursement at a later, unspecified date. “The government has made all kinds of splashy announcements, but it doesn’t fit the reality of what people have to do to rebuild their lives with dignity,” says NDP Opposition leader Gary Doer, who last week met with some 40 flood victims at the legislature. “These are hardworking people who don’t want to keep begging the government to help them.” Premier Gary Filmon defends his government’s record in the face of a natural disaster that inflicted an estimated $220 million in damage. “We’ve put in place all the resources we could to deal with the flood and its aftermath,” he told Maclean’s. Filmon points out that the province hired more than 120 inspectors, from across the country, to evaluate and quickly expedite claims. Among the measures have been the establishment of information centres, counselling services, easier access to credit and, more recently, a pledge to advance up to half of the claim award for those unable to obtain credit. “Every type of flexibility that seemed reasonable has been vations will be covered. We’ll survive, we’re independent again—but at a high cost. Believe me, I’ve cried two rivers.”

Homeowners in the Red River plain are also being encouraged to participate in the $58-million flood-proofing program. Funded by $46 million from the province and $12 million from Ottawa, it requires participants to raise or rebuild their houses to 1997 flood levels plus two feet. The program pays for flood-proofing up to a $30,000 limit, with a de ductible of 25 per cent. And for those unable to come up with the cash, the government says it has made an arrangement with Mans'’ itoba Agricultural Credit Corp. to offer S bridge financing at low-cost terms.

I So far, 17 communities and 1,322 individuals g have requested financial aid from the flood5 proofing program, which has approved 864 in§ dividuals projects and is conducting feasibility 1 studies for the community projects. (As well, * officials plan to rebuild the hastily constructed Brunkild Dike, an engineering feat completed b in four days last spring to bolster the flood-con-

applied,” the premier said.

‘We know there are still people living in difficult circumstances and want to do everything reasonable to help.”

That is small comfort to some still struggling with the flood’s aftermath. André Chaput, 71, is a retired Canadian Forces serviceman from St.

Adolphe who, with his wife,

Elmire, moved back into their house late last week. Chaput says that he waited for six weeks after the flood receded for provincial inspectors to assess the damage to his home. When no one showed up, he got an $80,000 damage estimate from a contractor and began renovating in mid-July. But EMO inspectors have since judged the estimate to be too high—even though they have not yet settled on a final figure. “So far, I’ve done about $40,000 worth of work and by the beginning of September, I’d gotten only $6,000 compensation back,” says Chaput. “Now I’m up to $26,000, but that’s still a long way from $80,000.1 still don’t know how much I’ll eventually get, or when, or even whether things like my roof or kitchen reno-

frol system.) But some Manitobans wonder if the costly flood-proofing measures could be avoided by building more community ring dikes to protect the area.

Some displaced flood victims, meanwhile, are determined to be back in their homes before Christmas. Paul Brulé of Ritchot municipality decided he had to act quickly if he and his wife, Doreen, were to return to their house before the holiday season. Although he has not received a final assessment from government inspectors, he estimates the damage to his five-acre property at up to $100,000. “I’ve gone ahead and borrowed money,” said Brulé, 53. “I can do that be-

cause I have a job atTransCanada Pipeline, but a lot of people can’t.” And he says he will press the government for every penny. “I’ll get that money back,” Brulé says, “if I have to submit those receipts every day. I’ll damn well get it back.”

Adding to the uncertainty and confusion of rebuilding are the lingering psychological wounds of the disaster. “People are traumatized and still coming to grips with the longterm effects,” said Marc Bruyère, a training and education officer at one of three aid centres set up by the EMO in St. Adolphe, Rosenort and Letellier. ‘We try to make it as easy as possible, helping them with all the forms, and offering them counselling as well as financial assistance.”

The Salvation Army also offers counselling, as well as day-to-day necessities. Charles Mundy and his wife, Ivy, longtime lay members of the Salvation Army, travelled from Scarborough, Ont., in May to volunteer for two weeks—and have since agreed to stay on until next June. They are based at a Salvation Army depot in St. Adolphe that supplies people with food and goods, and sends out four canteen trucks every day. “I think the worst stress levels are occurring now,” said Charlie Mundy. “People are very frustrated by the long wait for money and the fact that they’re not able to get back into their homes. Some of them are being told that, because winter is coming on, they can’t stay in the temporary trailers, that they have to move again.”

Harold Clayton, the 45-year-old executive co-ordinator of the EMO, knows that some people are falling through the cracks. “We’re particularly concerned about seniors, some of whom have a very hard decision to make about whether to rebuild or simply move altogether,” says Clayton, a former deputy mayor of Portage la Prairie who has a diploma in psychiatric nursing. People in rental situations, who are not eligible for any compensation, are another concern. But Clayton points to the large number of claims that have already been satisfactorily settled—one-third—as proof that the flood relief program has been effective.

One such case is that of Tom and Kathleen Handley, dairy farmers whose home outside St. Adolphe was heavily damaged. They are still living in a trailer—but they say they have few complaints about the government’s relief efforts. Although Tom Handley thinks the province is being “rather parsimonious,” he adds that “we have been reimbursed with a lump sum, delivered promptly, that allowed us to start rebuilding.” Handley emigrated from England with his wife and two sons six years ago, and remains philosophical about his experience with the flood. “Of all the water that covers the earth, only two per cent of it is fresh. It’s still a beautiful thing.” Others are less sanguine. “Maybe the government should issue a new stamp with a picture of the flood on it,” says Chaput, “and the words ‘Don’t forget us.’ ”