PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- What was supposed to be a quiet July weekend for hundreds of people in the Assiniboine Valley was instead the start of a massive effort to protect up to 350 homes from unprecedented summer flooding.
Saturday afternoon, 300 soldiers from CFB Shilo rolled into Portage la Prairie to help municipal workers and volunteers start making up to one million sandbags -- in almost suffocating muggy heat -- needed in the coming days to save about 200 homes along the Assiniboine River and 150 properties south of the Hoop and Holler Bend, a twist in Highway 331 southeast of Portage la Prairie. It was blocked by RCMP to all public traffic early Saturday.
The province says, as a last resort, it will dig a trench through Highway 331 to release up to 5,000 cubic feet per second of water from the Assiniboine River. The same spot was intentionally breached during the height of the massive 2011 flood to contain the swollen river.
If the province breaches the dike again, water will flow into lush farm fields planted weeks ago, before there was any hint of what was coming.
"We're not leaving," area resident Annabelle Stuart said Saturday. "They'll have to carry me out."
Stuart and her husband Jim were evacuated from their home west of Hoop and Holler in 2011.
Premier Greg Selinger says the province may reopen the Hoop and Holler cut because the pressure of the bloated Assiniboine could cause an uncontrollable dike breach somewhere along the river between Portage la Prairie and Headingley.
"It will only be used as a last resort, if it's determined that high flows pose a serious risk of an uncontrolled breach along the Assiniboine dikes," he said. "It'll always act as a backup, never the first line of defence, but always as a backup."
Selinger also warned of the potential damage of wind events forecast for today on Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg.
"Levels on Lake Manitoba remain below 2011 levels, but high winds forecast for (Sunday) on the south basin could raise the lake tomorrow by two to three feet in that area," he said. "Also (Sunday), high winds in the south basin of Lake Winnipeg could raise levels by three to five feet."
The province said the most recent inspection of the Assiniboine River diking system, which is expected to handle up to 18,000 cubic feet per second of water in the coming days, is in better shape than initially feared. However, work to shore up dikes at 12 locations continue through the weekend.
"The dikes are actually in better condition that what we had expected," Doug McMahon, the province's of water control works, said.
The province has said if the cut at Hoop and Holler is made, the deliberately-released flood water will flow south through fields and ditches into Elm River and then into the La Salle River, which flows into the Red River in south Winnipeg.
Affected residents say that's wishful thinking.
They say the flood water will instead spread out over their fields and destroy their crops, from canola to vegetables, polluting the land from future use for several years because of its turbid water.
That's what has people seething -- that the Selinger would again sacrifice them instead of the backyards of the mansions on Wellington Crescent in Winnipeg.
"To take your farmland where your tax dollar comes from and wreck that because it might happen somewhere else, it just makes no sense," Ron Owens said Saturday. "I mean, gee whiz. We're paying people to protect us. We're paying people to put stuff in place. They're not doing the job. Any time I didn't do stuff, I was threatened with being fired. Well, fire somebody."
Owens and his family live against the Elm River and had their home sandbagged in 2011, although the water then only came up to the field behind their house.
Ed Connery, a former provincial politician who also lives just south of Hoop and Holler, said the deliberate breach could be devastating for the area as crops are well in the ground.
"If they do what they're saying, our whole farm will be flooded," he said as furniture was removed from a family member's house nearby. "I worked since 1960 to build this farm. Now it might go to nothing."
The military was called in Thursday by the province after Selinger requested their assistance in a phone call to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. On Saturday night, Harper announced he will be visiting Manitoba today to tour the flood zone and offer "support to those affected."
The province says their assistance is critical if the province wants to protect so many homes before the flood crest arrives at Portage la Prairie early this week.
Selinger said Saturday as many 400 Canadian troops were to be dispatched to help in various locations in southern Manitoba.
"Duty calls," Bombadier Jonathan Kaiser said of making sandbags at the Portage municipal yard. "I did this in 2011. I know what's expected of me. I like it."
Just west of Portage la Prairie, heavy machinery was busy building up the east-side dike of the diversion, digging up black earth from the side of a nearby access road and hauling it through a soggy field to on top of the dike, where it was dumped and compacted. The diversion is expected to handle up to 34,000 cubic feet per second of water that will flow into Lake Manitoba, which is already at flood stage. The anger at Hoop and Holler Bend is also being heard in communities that ring Lake Manitoba, which saw hundreds of properties destroyed in 2011 when a May windstorm sent waves crashing into many cottage living rooms.
On Saturday, municipal officials warned property owners to remove valuable possessions from their yards to higher ground and to ensure their primary vehicle is fuelled up in case they're told to evacuate at moment's notice.
Like Owens, they say the province has been too slow to build an additional outlet on Lake Manitoba to drain it more quickly.
The province has said they are studying doing just that, based on a finding in a report done after the 2011 flood, but the design work will take additional time.
"We'd like to have it done now," Selinger said. "No question about it. We'd like to have protection in place for people right now. But we're very cognizant of the fact that any measures we take, we want them to be strong enough, thoroughly engineered enough that they can take the kind of water we're seeing since 2011."
In Brandon on Saturday, where the Assiniboine was expected to crest early this morning just below 2011 levels, onlookers flocked to the bridge on First Street, which has been closed to traffic as rapids have formed as the river rolls over First Street.
City staff were keeping people well away from the water itself. On Friday, some people were swimming in the flooded park, but Saturday, the city said police were ready to ticket people for trespassing.
-- with files from the Brandon Sun