A growing number of cottagers on Lake Manitoba want the province to buy them out rather than rebuild and wait for the next big storm -- one that could completely wipe them out.
But Premier Greg Selinger said Tuesday that buyouts are not part of the province's flood-relief plan.
"The program is for mitigation and for restoration," he said. "There is not a buy-out program."
Cottagers said if the province doesn't offer buyouts, they'll sue to get a judge to decide what their property is worth and what the province should pay.
"If I decide to walk away, they won't pay anything, and I don't think that's right," Twin Lakes Beach cottage owner Dave Seifert said. "This is not a flood in the traditional sense. It's going to go on and on and on.
"My retirement was going to be out there, but I realize now that I'm going to have to come up with a different plan. I'm prepared to walk away, but not empty-handed."
Hundreds of cottages and a number of year-round homes were pounded in a storm last week that saw huge waves chew up the shoreline and push buildings around like kids' toys. Several cottages close to the shore were ripped apart.
In the worst-hit areas, including Twin Lakes Beach and Delta Beach, most homeowners and cottagers have not been allowed back by authorities because of the danger, but a few have snuck in to take photos.
Some say the province caused the damage by artificially raising the level of the lake by funnelling in flood water through the Portage Diversion from the Assiniboine River. Because of the inflows from the diversion and other rivers, Lake Manitoba is expected to hit a record high of 816.5 feet above sea level in July, almost a foot higher than previously forecast. During the 1955 flood, Lake Manitoba reached 816.3 feet.
"The next big storm that comes up, it picks up from where the last one left off," Seifert warned.
Twin Lakes Beach cottage owner Jeff Douglas said if the province cannot guarantee to cap the lake level at 812 feet, there's no point rebuilding.
"I want to stay, but why would I want to stay if you're in an unnatural flood plain," Douglas said.
Progressive Conservative leader Hugh McFadyen said the province should make buyouts an option. "It's obvious people around Lake Manitoba have been treated like second-class citizens."
Selinger said the $175-million compensation program will help rebuild or move cottages or homes back from the lake's edge and then flood-proof them in the same way hundreds of homes were protected following the 1997 flood in the Red River Valley.
The province is also looking at how it can better manage the flow of water through Lake Manitoba at the Fairford dam and nearby Lake St. Martin, he said. One idea is to dig a channel from Lake St. Martin to Lake Winnipeg to drain it faster.
"The current compensation program is to help people protect themselves and restore themselves where they've been damaged," Selinger said. "The structural program is look at a bigger outlet in the north end of the lake which would allow the lake to be controlled better."
When the Portage Diversion was built in the early 1960s, it was designed to handle a maximum of 25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water. At the height of the flood, up to 34,000 cfs flowed through the diversion. The Fairford dam outlet was only built to handle 17,000 cfs.
The province was quick to offer its flood relief program two weeks ago, but that was before the devastation on Lake Manitoba. People like Douglas and McFadyen said the province could have predicted the destruction based on what happened last October, when a cyclone-like storm hit the lake, and on earlier studies on the lake's high water levels, the last one done in 2003.
Cottagers are also upset that the province's flood-relief program caps compensation to cottagers at $90,000. Permanent homeowners are eligible for $200,000, plus there's other money available to move structures back from the lake.
Cottagers say the $90,000 cap doesn't reflect the value of their property or what they lost.
"We've been hit emotionally and financially," Twin Lakes Beach cottage owner Ruby Grymonpre said. "They offered 100 per cent compensation to people affected by Hoop and Holler, but not people on Lake Manitoba. This should all be about equity."
The province offered 100 per cent compensation to people south of Portage La Prairie after it breached a road at Hoop and Holler Bend to release flood water from the Assiniboine River.