Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

River's rage awakens after long peace

Brandonites' view of the Assiniboine will likely be changed permanently

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BRANDON -- When forecasters first warned that Manitoba's second-largest city faced a threat from the Assiniboine River this spring, initial reactions ranged from skepticism to contempt.

Young Brandonites and recent arrivals had no experience of the flood of 1976, the last severe flood in recent memory.

Old-timers shook their heads and noted the Assiniboine River had never come close to the level of the dikes the province suggested building, not even in the more severe deluge of 1923.

The initial warning about 2011 came in February. When the dikes went up in March, some riverfront residents complained about the lousy mess and lousier views in their backyards.

Fiscal conservatives complained about the waste of public funds, even as partisan elements among them quietly welcomed a potential new weapon to wield against a long-in-the-tooth NDP government.

And people of many walks of life scoffed at the suggestion the Corral Centre, the low-lying big-box development on the north side of the Assiniboine River, could ever be threatened by flood waters.

On Thursday, the Corral Centre was evacuated. The supposedly pointless dikes along the Assiniboine had been topped up with temporary measures to protect against a record river height of 1,184 feet above sea level and a record flow of 41,000 cubic feet per second -- two milestones now expected to arrive next week.

And homeowners in The Flats, Kirkcaldy Heights and elsewhere are thankful for the mess of aqua dams, super-sandbags and earth that have so far prevented the Assiniboine from turning their yards into river-bottom gumbo during the event now known as Brandon's one-in-300-year flood.

"Everyone said the river would never get this high. The next thing you know, the water's up to the top of the dike," said Les Roulette, a 30-year-old Kirkcaldy Heights resident who spent three days in the Royal Oak Inn with his wife and young daughter as part of a temporary evacuation.

His wife Misty works at the Corral Centre Walmart, which was handed a mandatory precautionary evacuation order on Thursday morning and closed down at the end of the lunch hour.

Brandon officials said the closure of the big-box development stemmed from potential for a troublesome if not impossible evacuation in the event of a dike failure. The risk is palpable, as nearby 18th Street now sits seven feet below the surface of the Assiniboine.

Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst said the city is committed to protecting all of its existing developments, including the 430,000-square-foot Corral Centre, which Winnipeg's Shindico started building in 2004.

Future low-lying developments may face a cold shoulder at Brandon's city hall.

"Going forward, the city has a potential development on Veterans' Way, which is under water right now," Decter Hirst said Thursday .

"I'm thinking it's a perfect place for soccer fields and baseball diamonds."

The record flood in Brandon has irrevocably altered the way Brandon residents think about the Assiniboine River, the mayor suggested.

"Something that's ingrained into people along the Red is now what people along the Assiniboine will have -- a healthy respect for the river and what it can do," she said. "This flood will have a permanent impact."

The flood is certainly not over, as 1,326 Brandon residents remain evacuated and the next and possibly finally crest on the Assiniboine River may last three days.

But the city is beginning to think about a permanent means of protecting itself from oversized Assiniboine flows in the future. Ideally, that would involve ripping apart the existing dikes, said Brian Kayes, Brandon's emergency co-ordinator.

The first permanent dikes in Brandon went up in the 1940s, Kayes said. Additions were made in 1976, 1995 and this spring, among other flood seasons.

The best way to replace the hodgepodge of earthworks would be to remove entire sections and build new dikes to modern engineering standards, he said.

The price tag, of course, would be immense.

"We haven't looked at it," said Kayes of the potential cost of such a project. "We've been so busy managing what's coming our way."

Unlike Winnipeg, only a portion of Brandon sits on top of a flood plain. What's now the Assiniboine River meanders along the bottom of a glacial spillway. This valley is the remnant of a massive current that originally tore through the Prairies thousands of years ago and has carved out a number of different channels over the ensuing centuries.

Recently, which is just an eyeblink of geological time, the Assiniboine has been content to reside within its lower banks and leave the human beings on the surrounding flood plain alone.

This year was not one of those years.

"At some times, the Assiniboine becomes a raging river," said Kayes, matter-of-factly. "We have a clear idea of that now."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 13, 2011 A4

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