Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

10,000 sandbags a day, give or take

Sore abs, welts battle scars of river-dike duty

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RM OF PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- Brown-bag lunches, a little Beastie Boys on a portable radio and a lot of sunshine. Add in 12-hour days tossing 200,000 more sandbags and that will be a soldier's life on an Assiniboine River dike for the next couple of days.

Roughly 535 active-duty soldiers and reservists are stationed on the south side of the river near Highway 430, shoring up mushy spots in the dike with thousands of sandbags and even some navy divers armed with a cement-like substance to plug bubbling holes.

About half as many soldiers are working on the north side of the river. Once they're finished along the worrisome 22-kilometre stretch of riverbank, they could be deployed to help fight rising waters on Lake Manitoba.

So far, soldiers have likely tossed one million bags and are confident the river can handle expected flows of 19,500 cubic feet per second.

"We can withstand it now, but Mother Nature always gets a vote," said Maj. Scott MacGregor from the Second Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in CFB Shilo.

That's why soldiers spent all day Tuesday working flat-out on about a half-dozen trouble spots, especially one alarming location west of the highway.

"Some severe stomach acid was created there," said MacGregor as he pointed to a mess of topographical maps, white boards and pins marking each cluster of soldiers.

Roughly 200 soldiers are at the hotspot sandbagging, and the dike is too soft to risk using vehicles to truck in bags. Instead, four helicopters make round trips, picking up sandbags piled on the highway and delivering them to the riverbank.

The location is on 24-hour watch.

On this stretch of the river, soldiers began with roughly 20 spots along the dike that needed attention. That's been reduced in recent days to perhaps a half-dozen. Soldiers are "armouring" the dike, not building it taller but shoring up the base where cleaves or cuts have formed as water seeps underneath, thanks in part to gopher holes.

Soldiers lay down patches of geotextile over the mucky sections and pile sandbags on top. When they step on the special fabric to form a sandbag line, the black fabric squishes underneath their boots like Jell-O covered with plastic wrap.

Navy divers wade into chest-high water to cut down trees, making way for helicopters and sandbaggers. The divers have also used bentonite, a type of absorbent clay pellet, that expands when it hits water and helps to plug bubbling holes in the dike.

More than 1,000 soldiers are working in the flood zone -- reservists from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Saskatoon, 2PPCLI soldiers from Shilo, First Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry from Edmonton and soldiers from Lord Strathcona's Horse, also from Edmonton.

Many, including soldiers with Lord Strathcona's Horse, had just finished weeks-long field-training exercises. They had enough time to stop at home, do some laundry and have a shower before being deployed to the Assiniboine River, Lieut. Andrew Warlow said.

Soldiers are sleeping on cots at Centennial Hall in Portage la Prairie, where they've set up a kitchen after a few days of hard rations. Thursday is steak night. They say they're getting a "fantastic" response from Portage residents -- free coffee at Tim Hortons, tons of waves and thank-yous. A Hutterite colony takes food to the command post on Highway 430 every day.

There have been few setbacks, except sore abs and welts on the inside of arms from tossing bags. One soldier passed the time by calculating the number of bags his line tossed per day.

"10,000," he said. "Give or take a couple hundred."

2011 more frenzied

than '97 flood


FOR soldiers, this year's flood is muddier, more reactive and maybe a little lonelier than 1997.

Most of the military faces on the sandbagging lines along the Assiniboine River are too young to have helped Manitoba battle the Red River 14 years ago. But Master Warrant Officer Kevin Littlejohn, now one of the senior guys in the trailer that serves as the sandbagging headquarters on Highway 430, recalls being a 31-year-old sergeant who helped protect homes in Altona and Transcona in 1997.

Originally from Ontario and now with the Second Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Littlejohn said the military's role in the Flood of the Century seemed less frenzied.

"It was more proactive than reactive," he recalled.

Equipment has been trickier to come by this year than in 1997, partly because the flood snuck up on the province. In 1997, by the time the soldiers arrived at a location, the gear was already there waiting for them.

Littlejohn fought the flood in Manitoba for nearly two months, and got to interact more with homeowners and residents. This time, soldiers have spent most of their time on fairly isolated stretches of the Assiniboine, working in windy fields instead of small towns and suburbs.

That's a mixed bag, said Littlejohn.

"You always want the community to know you're there working for them," said Littlejohn. "But are you a photo-op or are you doing something to really help?"

-- Mary Agnes Welch

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2011 A4

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