Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Armed Forces pitch in again

Ottawa sends troops to help as Assiniboine threat grows

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Troops are coming to help fight the flood west of Winnipeg as the record-high Assiniboine River threatens farms and homes.

A couple of hundred soldiers from the Canadian Armed Forces will have just three days to handle about 2.7 million sandbags needed to shore up the dikes from Portage la Prairie to Headingley, Premier Greg Selinger said Sunday night.

Earlier in the day, he called Prime Minister Stephen Harper to ask him to send in the soldiers.

"The prime minister pledged his full support and co-operation," said Selinger at a news conference.

It's the first time since 1997 troops have helped in the Manitoba flood-fighting effort.

During the Flood of the Century, 8,000 military personnel stood shoulder to shoulder with volunteers, tossing sandbags and fortifying dikes.

Nearly 30,000 Manitobans were forced to evacuate their homes in '97.

Selinger said members of the military could be arriving as early as today to reinforce and monitor the dikes. There are some tight spots along the river that are difficult to access with heavy equipment and plenty of trained manpower is needed, he said.

Manitoba Water Stewardship is concerned that if the Assiniboine River exceeds its banks east of Portage la Prairie, it may spill into the nearby La Salle River, which runs parallel to the Assiniboine for part of its course.

Since the Assiniboine is perched at a higher elevation than the La Salle, the lower river would end up carrying much of its flow to the Red River, Don Norquay, deputy minister of Manitoba Water Stewardship said earlier. This would threaten the towns along the La Salle River, such as Elie, Sanford, Starbuck and La Salle, which have not prepared for flood waters.

On Sunday, Selinger couldn't say how many soldiers and reservists would be working along the Assiniboine River today, or where they would be deployed.

"We'll be working through the night to assess the situation and the challenges we face."

Last week, Canadian troops were deployed in Quebec after heavy flooding in that province forced thousands of residents from their homes.

Nearly 800 Canadian soldiers are now working on the relief operation and they have laid down nearly 50,000 sandbags.

Flood waters in Quebec, however, continue to decline Sunday and authorities expect levels to drop about 1.5 inches a day in the coming week if the weather co-operates.

In Manitoba, the military already has the lay of the waterlogged land. Since this flood season started, members of the Armed Forces have been involved with the province's emergency measures co-ordinating committee working out of the 15th floor of Winnipeg's Woodsworth Building, officials said.

The province is still assessing the number of homes and farms from Portage to Headingley at risk.

Selinger said the province is also concerned about several agricultural businesses along the Assiniboine that are also in danger.

"There are egg hatcheries, vegetable farms and major agricultural activities" that employ many Manitobans, said Selinger.

The troops weren't requested in Brandon, where dikes are being raised and people are crossing their fingers.

East of Brandon, the flows are heavier with the swollen Souris River draining into the Assiniboine.

The Assiniboine had already reached record levels with the May 1 snow and rainstorm that hit the region.

The province is worried about the area west of Winnipeg, and not the city, said Steve Topping, executive director of Manitoba Water Stewardship. When the Assiniboine deluge hits Winnipeg, there isn't a fear of flooding thanks to the floodway and lower levels on the Red, said Topping.

But from Portage to Headingley, the flood threat is expected to worsen, he said.

More rain is in the forecast and river levels are expected to rise through to Wednesday. After that, levels are expected to stay high for at least a week, said Topping. Flood protection there will have to hold for many days and constantly be monitored, something the military can provide.

"If anything breaches, we'll have trained personnel who can move very quickly," said Selinger.

Meanwhile, some residents in the RMs of St. Francois Xavier and Cartier were busy sandbagging Sunday as about 40 homes along the rising Assiniboine River are at risk of flooding.

Dozens of neighbours pitched in to build up dikes around several homes on Ferry Road and Golden Oak Cove in the RM of Cartier. Sandbags, delivered by the rural municipality on Saturday, were piled along the street as front-end loaders carried them to houses in need.

The sense of urgency was clear, as volunteers hurried from property to property to see who needed them the most. Some sections of Golden Oak resembled a marsh as yards and driveways were completely submerged in murky water.

Residents said the surge caught them by surprise.

Bryan Ezako's house on Golden Oak is completely surrounded by water, forcing himself and his wife to boat from the end of their driveway to their front door through waist-deep water.

Ezako, who only moved to the area two months ago, is frustrated the province was unable to warn them about elevated water levels.

"We probably could have been spared a lot of this... had we known well in advance there (would be) record-high levels," he said.

The province said Friday a faulty gauge on the Qu'Appelle River in Welby, Sask., was supplying inaccurate readings for the Assiniboine.

Ezako is concerned the forecast rain over the next few days will worsen things. But he said neighbours banded together this weekend to protect homes at risk.

-- with file from Bartley Kives

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca sandy.klowak@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2011 A3

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