Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A deluge begins with a trickle

Calm prevails as breach crawls across prairie

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EAST OF HOOP AND HOLLER BEND -- This is how a disaster creeps on a surreal sunny spring day -- a trickle of water onto a gravel country road, then a second trickle, and a third, and a fourth.

The water comes from a lake that was still a farmer's field on Saturday.

But at noon Sunday it had become the front line of water spreading from the deliberate cut in the Assiniboine River dike the province made at 7 a.m. Saturday.

And over the course of 20 minutes around noon Sunday, one of those trickles reaches the other side of the gravel road and starts to drip into the next section of land.

Yet it was all so quiet and serene -- only the occasional vehicle engine or a military helicopter flying overhead joining the sounds of the wind and of delighted frogs in their new wetlands.

The water was spilling at noon Sunday over Road 32W, near the crossroads with Road 62N, and only people who live around there have a clue precisely where that is.

East of Portage la Prairie, south of the Trans-Canada Highway, the deliberate flood is moving slowly generally east and south, so far staying south of Provincial Road 331. By noon Sunday, the water overrunning 32W was still about four kilometres away from the village of Newton and at its current rate of flow, was not expected to reach Oakville until at least Tuesday and probably not until Wednesday.

There's no panic.

People were walking a few metres away from the head of the flood waters Sunday, no one in any danger, though they were walking on roads that may no longer be visible today.

Security people had set up a roadblock at 32W and 62N, but 62N in the direction of Hoop and Holler Bend was still above water, and flood-fighting vehicles were still moving along it. Road 62N looked like a causeway, water up to road level on one side, slowly approaching that level on the other.

On the other side of 62N, water was filling the field and moving inexorably towards a sandbagged farmhouse.

"We're out -- we've been out since Wednesday morning," said weary homeowner Robert Stanger, who, as the unfortunate owner of the next home to be threatened by the deliberate flood, spent Sunday being interviewed by every reporter who'd driven down the dusty back road.

"It'll be there by tonight (Sunday)," sighed Stanger, whose family has moved into Portage la Prairie to stay with friends.

He'd come back to have a last look at his house, uncertain if five feet of sandbags would be enough to save his home, none of the municipal or military or provincial crews denying him entry.

"No one stops me from doing anything," Stanger shrugged.

Then, shaking his head and getting back into his vehicle, Stanger asked for some space: "I can't do any more of this," he said, reversing, and heading back towards Oakville and the Trans-Canada to join his family in Portage.

Land in the water's path is clearly cut into squares by straight gravel roads a kilometre or so apart and part of the province's plan is to use those sections of land to store the water diverted from the Assiniboine, while throwing up sandbags and temporary diking around homes and key buildings.

As the water slowly trickled over 32W, a creek on the dry side was already swollen by water moving through a culvert further up the road, two metres wide with a discernible current.

Most places in the next threatened section had been sandbagged.

The better part of a kilometre down the road ahead of the water, an eclectic mix of guys was filling a giant tiger tube with water around one house -- soldiers based in Edmonton, the driver of a 55,000-litre water tanker from a nearby Hutterite colony, a few guys who said they were working on contract for the province and weren't really supposed to be talking to the media.

Trooper Lyle Spencer of the Lord Strathcona's Horse Squadron and truck driver Nathan Waldner of the Norquay Hutterite Colony planted their elbows atop the tiger tube and grappled in an arm-wrestling duel. Let's be clear here -- they were awaiting the set-up of equipment, and no one, absolutely no one, was shirking duty.

Each man chortled that he had won.

"I beat the (crap) out of you -- let's do it again," laughed the smaller Waldner.

Spencer said the soldiers have been on duty since Tuesday, and setting up tube dikes is far less strenuous than tossing sandbags.

"Yeah, it snowed" last week, said Spencer, who was much happier working in sunshine and dry weather working its way toward 19 C on Sunday.

"We're staying at Southport Airport -- they're doing a great job of feeding us," he said.

One of the guys working for the province who wasn't supposed to talk to the media said the tube dike around the house will be three feet high, but no one knows how high the water will rise. "Too many rumours," he said.

Provincial Road 331 usually goes through all the way to Portage la Prairie, but by Sunday it was blocked at 32W by three men working for provincial government security. Three men, a vehicle, a wooden barrier, a portable toilet civilization's last temporary outpost between the water and the rest of us.

The security people wouldn't allow anyone to walk along 32W to take photos of the water, even though there was free movement of media and looky-loos a kilometre away on 62N parallel to Highway 331. No, not even as far as the sandbagged house a few metres away, still sitting above the rising water.

Every house thoughout that area has been evacuated and sandbagged.

Where it's still dry, there was nary a soul to be seen Sunday -- no one working in the fields, no one in the yards, no kids playing.

All the way along the path of the Hoop and Holler spill, people are preparing for water to come.

Yet a few minutes' drive east of Elie, just beyond where the Assiniboine River has already spilled beyond its banks as it crosses the highway, the golf course at John Blumberg was absolutely packed Sunday with golfers blithely unaware of the disaster unfolding to the west.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2011 A4

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