Canada

'THE FLOOD OF THE CENTURY'

Manitobans flee the surging waters of the Angry Red River

JAKE MACDONALD,¦ May 5 1997
Canada

'THE FLOOD OF THE CENTURY'

Manitobans flee the surging waters of the Angry Red River

JAKE MACDONALD,¦ May 5 1997

'THE FLOOD OF THE CENTURY'

Canada

Manitobans flee the surging waters of the Angry Red River

JAKE MACDONALD,■

Instead of the klaxon yelping of migrating geese, the first light of April 23 brought the ominous thumping of helicopters to the skies over Morris. At mid-morning, a caravan of armored personnel carriers rumbled into the empty schoolyard of the small Manitoba town, 40 km north of the U.S. border. Fifty soldiers climbed out and began unloading their equipment. For the indefinite future, the school will be their new command post and headquarters. The enemy, just beyond a four-metre-high dike of bulldozed earth surrounding the neat, modern neigh-

borhood, is a sea of floodwater extending all the way to the southern horizon. At 5 a.m, school principal Ross Murison awoke to air-raid sirens wailing up and down the Red River valley after provincial officials declared a state of emergency and ordered the valley’s 17,000 residents to leave their homes. “We knew this was coming, so yesterday the kids helped the teachers and we moved a lot of stuff up to the mezzanine floor,” Murison said as he packed up cornputers in the deserted school. “The kids have really been great. A lot of them have sore muscles from sandbagging, but this is their school, and they don’t want to lose it.” Loss was on the minds of many Manitobans last week as the angry Red continued to rise. With the floodwaters already covering an area of 2,000 square km—about one-third the size of Prince Edward Island—authorities also ordered the evacuation of some homes in the provincial capital of Winnipeg, another 55 km north of Morris. One home in the south

end of the city was flooded because of an inadequate dike— a case, authorities said, of “too little, too late on the part of the homeowner." The warning was not lost on others who, aided by about 2,000 Canadian Forces troops, feverishly worked to shore up their defences against the rampaging waters. The Royal Bank, meanwhile, launched a national flood relief effort, with various media organizations providing free advertising. And at week’s end, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien arrived in the province to tour the stricken area—and praise the efforts of Manitobans. “Everybody’s pulling in the same direction,” he said, “and people all across Canada want to help.”

Teachers at the Morris school gave each student a “homework bag” for the month or longer that the school is likely to be closed. “Our students are scattering to the four winds,” said Murison. ‘They’re going to Saskatchewan, Ontario, Winnipeg—anywhere that it’s dry.” A wise precaution, given the enormity of the disaster facing the province. Reminders of the damage the river could wreak—and of the fact that the worst was yet to come—were evident in the procession of vehicles that streamed through town, crawling cautiously through the sheet of water flowing over Highway 75.

Some had North Dakota plates, and carried refugees from the disaster at Grand Forks.

On Friday, April 18, the Red crested at the city of 48,000, 120 km south of the border, punching through the protective dikes and submerging the entire community in up to 4.5 m of ice-clogged water—the highest recorded flood in Grand Forks history. The next day, the floodwaters ruptured gas lines in the town’s historic downtown business district and started a night-long firestorm that, in spite of the water, destroyed six buildings and severely damaged another 11.

By the morning of April 20, downtown Grand Forks looked like the aftermath of an incendiary bombing raid. It was a scene that haunted many Manitobans as the flood crest rolled northward. Provincial officials said it was likely to cross the Manitoba border early this week, hit Morris on April 29 and likely arrive in Winnipeg on May 5. And they continued to upgrade their estimates of the probable size of the deluge. “We can’t rely on historic data,” said provincial flood control chief Larry Whitney, “because we simply don’t have any for a flood of this

size.” Forecasts were further complicated by the record-breaking blizzard of early April, which, after an already hard winter, dumped an additional 50 cm of snow on southern Manitoba—just before the spring thaw. "The biggest flood of the century was in 1950,” said Whitney. “It created a lake of about 1,000 square km. This one will be about three times that size.”

Bisected by the Red, Winnipeg is putting its faith in the Red River Floodway, a 47-km-long channel built to divert floodwater around the city. Night after night, the thud of rotor blades and the boom of high explosives disturbed the sleep of riverside residents as helicopter crews dropped charges into the river at the mouth of the Floodway, trying to break up ice jams clogging the entrance. And at 10 p.m. on April 21, as a huge spring moon rose above the ebony river, former premier Duff Roblin walked into the system’s control room and sounded the loud siren that warns Winnipeggers that the Floodway is about to be opened.

Now regarded as a folk hero in Manitoba, Roblin gambled his political career on the construction of the $63-million Floodway, completed in 1968. Last week, pressing a button on the control panel, he lifted a pair of enormous diversion baffles under the river—and sent 56,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Floodway. “I’d never been in the control room before—believe it or not,” Roblin later said. “Premier Gary Filmon felt that I should have the honor of opening the Floodway, and I must say that it was quite a thrill.”

City officials say that if the Floodway holds, it will probably save Winnipeg from an estimated $1 billion in damages in the coming flood. But the city is still unlikely to escape unscathed—while smaller towns like Morris have no such protection and sit right in the path of the oncoming flood. Morris is, however, encircled by a wide earthen dike, a permanent structure of better quality than the sandbag dikes that failed at Grand Forks. But after watching television footage of that disaster, Manitobans in general appeared less confident than they had been a week ago. As young employees at downtown Morris’s IGA grocery store feverishly packed up shelf contents last week, manager Stan Dueck made arrangements to send his meat and dairy products back to the suppliers. “We’ve put a lot of faith in our town dike,” he said. “But we keep getting the same message from people coming up here from the United States: You’re not going to believe what’s coming.’ ”

At an impromptu airbase set up by the department of natural resources on the edge of town, pontoon-equipped Jet Ranger helicopters stood by for possible emergency calls. Nearby, an elite helicopter crew from Pine Falls, 100 km northeast of Winnipeg, more accustomed to fighting forest fires than floods, looked over the inflatable Zodiac boats that had been delivered by the coast guard. In the crowded hallways of the municipal offices down the street, soldiers, RCMP officers, Natural Resources officials and town residents milled about, conducting hasty discussions and telephone conversations in the strained, deliberately formal manner of people stretched to the limit. “Nobody has slept much,” said local farmer Dennis Rempel. “Everybody is racing against the arrival of the water.”

Southern Manitoba is known for its “Red River gumbo”—rich black soil that produces some of the best crops in the world. But the same river that deposited the soil is now striking at those who till it. “A lot of machinery is frozen into the ground and still covered with snow,” said Rempel. ‘You can’t tow the equipment out or you’ll tear it apart. So it’ll be flooded, and after it’s over a lot of farmers will have a hard time getting their seeding done. This is going to put a dent in Canada’s grain production this year.” For some farmers, a price is already being exacted. A few kilometres outside Morris, Henry Siemens sent his 10,899 laying chickens to the slaughterhouse rather than sacri-

fice them to the flood—losing about $30,000. And in North Dakota, an estimated 100,000 livestock drowned, and are presumably floating downstream into Canada.

In the open fields to the north of Morris that were not yet flooded, large herds of white-tailed deer gathered in broad daylight, displaced by the overflowing Red. And on Harvey and Edna Dreger’s farm, just up the road from the Siemens place, a pair of exuberant kittens wrestled in the grass, unaware of the silent water creeping up through the woods. Like most of the farms in the Morris district, the Dreger farm is a first-class operation, its big yard surrounded by modern buildings and well-tended gardens. Like many of the area’s stubbornly self-sufficient farmers, the Dregers have no intention of leaving. “I’m staying right here,” said Edna, aged 64. “The men are working hard and they need someone to take care of them. I’ll cook and take phone messages and help with the sandbagging.”

Harvey Dreger has worked the land since 1934. For 27 years, Edna has been a kindergarten teacher at the Morris school. Last week, she made a last-minute trip to the building to retrieve a few “precious things.” Inside, the empty, expectant hallways echoed with the brisk click of her heels. “They say that if the dike fails the water will come up to the ceiling,” she said with a catch in her voice. “It’s just so hard to believe.” Gathering some potted flowers in her arms, she took one last look around her kindergarten room—the inverted chairs, the finger paintings on the walls—then headed for the exit. Capt. Patrick Robichaud of the Royal Van Doos regiment held the door for her. “It’s the changing of the guard,” she told him. ‘Take good care of our school.”