Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

First a tornado, now this...

Couple struggles to save home from second natural disaster

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ELIE -- Lynn and Les Kauppila dread the disaster headed their way.

The couple desperately piled up the first sandbag dike of their lives around their modest ranch home Wednesday and thought about the last disaster they barely survived.

"We had a tornado here four years ago and we lost our home; all these people lost their homes," Lynn said, gesturing to a street featuring four brand new homes all in a row.

She described how the couple hid in the basement as the wind ripped their house to splinters over their heads.

Now, they face a flood with only hours to prepare for it.

"I didn't want to see another disaster but I guess they've got to do what they're going to do," Lynn said. She sounded resigned.

Her husband pointed to the mound of earth still rising on the prairie that is the only thing standing between them and the coming water.

"We are going to get hit first with the water unless that dike over there stops it,'' Les said.

As Manitoba braces for the flood of the Assiniboine, Elie found itself facing the first flood in recent memory. About 40 soldiers, reservists from Winnipeg's Minto Armoury, moved steadily up and down the town's handful of streets, building sandbag dikes. It gave the town the appearance of a garrison on the front lines of a war.

Power 97, Winnipeg's rock radio station, sent a van to armed with free Tim Hortons coffee, doughnuts and T-shirts that were popular with soldiers and volunteers alike.

By mid-afternoon, most buildings wore fat, puffy sandbag rings as the latest fashion statement.

Behind the cheerful smiles, though, there's a lot of apprehension.

"I'm petrified, just not knowing what's going to happen," confessed Leslie Howard, a teacher.

Over in nearby St. François Xavier, preparing for the coming deluge is Jim Stinson's job. The St. Clements resident was tapped as the emergency co-ordinator for the RMs of Cartier St. François Xavier and Headingley.

On Wednesday, he ordered 105,000 sandbags from the province which dispatched the trucks with the much-needed defences. Stinson figures his team's got two days to bolster its perimeter. But it remains a race against time.

"It won't be a wall of water that's coming. And it will take a while to get here. But it's going to be coming and it's going to be moving around roads and natural obstacles," Stinson said.

Stinson said the cut in the dike isn't the only problem he has to contend with. There's also the uncertainty of whether the newly-improved dike on the north side of the Assiniboine will hold, given that it's not only untested but also was built upon frozen ground earlier this year.

Already in St. François Xavier, the Assiniboine silently overflowed one sheltered bend Wednesday, marooning a home whose only protection from the water that spread for 30 metres was an existing ring dike. Dozens of volunteers showed up to build a sandbag dike to keep the rising water back for homeowner Tracy Claeys.

Claeys said she and her husband bought the home from previous owners because they loved the river and thought they were safe; the house is protected behind a ring dike built to record levels after the 1976 flood. But the sole lane into the property is now flooded over and the water is still rising.

"If they weren't doing what they're doing, we'd have moved out," said Claeys, expressing gratitude to neighbours, friends and co-workers.

In Headingley, the upscale Assiniboine Landings is an enclave of large homes that sit on high ground above the river. "I think we're OK, but it's heartbreaking what's going on. My heart goes out to people," one homeowner said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2011 A5

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