On a sunny, raw spring afternoon, two 12-yearold schoolgirls stand on a concrete promenade at the Forks National Historic Site in downtown Winnipeg. After examining the plaque at the base of a pillar, they let their eyes roam upward, high overhead, to a band of brown tile that marks the crest of the epic flood that inundated Manitoba in 1826. Their shocked reaction is typical of those who have never witnessed a great flood of the Red River. “It’s hard to believe,” whispers Taylor McMillan to her friend Caitlin. ‘We’re standing on the bottom of a lake.” They may soon have more than monuments to educate them. For weeks, officials have been monitoring the river and warning Manitobans to prepare for the worst. And while the anticipated deluge is unlikely to match the proportions of the 1826 flood, forecasters appear united on one point: it will be bad.
South of the border, 100-year§ old high-water records were surpassed April 17 as the annual breakup of the Red River in Fargo, N.D., resulted in massive flooding. And late last week, residents evacuated Grand Forks, N.D.—only 200 km from Winnipeg—when floodwaters burst the city’s clay dikes. Even if Manitoba receives the cool spring weather that has been predicted, the southern part of the province is unlikely to escape unscathed when the river awakens at the end of this month. Two years of heavy precipitation logged into the water table and a rockhard frost layer in the ground mean that the earth will be unable to absorb much of the spring runoff. This year, there will be more of it than usual: adding to Manitoba’s woes was an early-April blizzard, which dumped an additional 50 cm of heavy snow on top of a record-breaking snowpack of as much as 250 cm. Provincial flood co-ordinator Larry Whitney summed up the sombre mood among officials. “It’s been a long winter. We didn’t need this.”
History provides potent reminders of the river’s foul mood. Almost yearly, the Red has threatened to overflow its banks—and Manitobans have fought back. The century’s worst
flood occurred in 1950, when a lake of 1,800 square kilometres covered southern Manitoba, causing $100 million in damage. Large sections of Winnipeg were submerged, and the government considered evacuating the entire city. According to Whitney, this year’s impending flood may be larger still. “Right now, we’re looking at a better-than-even chance that this flood will exceed 1950,” he says. “Thank God we’ve got the Floodway.” The Red River Floodway is a 47-kmlong ditch designed to channel floodwaters around Winnipeg. Completed in 1965, it was, at the time, the second-largest earthmoving project in history, after the Panama Canal. With its enormous $63-million price tag, it was scornfully labelled “Duff’s Ditch,” after its controversial champion, thenpremier Duff Roblin. But Whitney says the Floodway has paid for itself many times over. “Last year alone,” he adds, “we estimate that the Floodway saved the city of Winnipeg $1 billion in flood damage.” Still, about 400 homes within the city are in danger, and along stately riverside streets, homeowners and volunteers are shoring up backyard dikes with a 60-cm-high berm of sandbags. North of the city, commercial fishermen armed with power augers have drilled 40,000 holes into the river ice. Some officials refer to this as the “Swiss cheese experiment,” and hope that the perforated surface may break up early instead of crumpling into thick ice jams that typically exacerbate flooding. The province also used a helicopter to drop dark sand on the ice— theorizing that it will hasten the breakup by absorbing the sun’s heat.
The continual threat of flooding has brought out the inventiveness of some Manitobans. On a highway south of Winnipeg, contractor Guy Bergeron, 67, tows a 1,100kg machine that resembles a metal spider— his own contribution to Manitoba’s longstanding battle with the Red River. ‘We call it the Sandbagger,” he says. “I watched people, year after year, filling sandbags by hand, and thought, There has to be a better way.’ ” Bergeron designed the Sandbagger at his kitchen table while recovering from openheart surgery in 1991. The finished product uses a conveyor belt and rotating head to distribute sand to 12 spouts that funnel into bags. The result: 90 sandbags per minute.
The City of Winnipeg bought one of the machines in 1994 for $17,500. We’ve now got two of them, and so far this year we’ve produced a million sandbags,” says city official Eddy Kyjanka. We’re planning to fill 2.5 million before we’re done.” Upstream from Winnipeg, the city of East Grand Forks, N.D., has purchased two Sandbaggers to fight its own battle with the Red. “A crew from CNN flew up to do a story on the machine,” says Bergeron proudly.
Meanwhile, as the Red River cracks its icy shell in its inexorable push northward, it has taken eight lives and caused millions of dollars in damage. At the end of April, a 12-m-high surge is expected to cross the border into Manitoba and sweep around the dike-encircled towns of Emerson and Morris. The crest is expected to arrive in Winnipeg in early May, but if the weather and the Floodway hold, the city may be among the luckier ones along the river’s course.
Whatever mayhem the Red wreaks in the coming weeks, it is capable of much worse. High over the schoolgirls’ heads at the Forks, the 1826 marking serves as a chilling reminder of what Whitney calls “the mother of all floods.” According to climatologists, a flood of that magnitude may occur only once every 667 years. But when it does, nothing will keep the city dry. In 1826, Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Co., surveyed the choppy 90-km-long lake that covered the plains and bitterly concluded that such a flood was an “extinguisher to the hope of Red River [Winnipeg’s original name] ever retaining the name of settlement.” Apparently he didn’t fully appreciate the stubbornness of Manitobans.
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