Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tales from the battlefront

Everybody's doing their bit to beat back the water

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Paddling home

GOLDEN OAK COVE -- The canoe has made a comeback in this rural subdivision called Golden Oak Cove, to the west of St. François Xavier.

It's on what's called a "meandering plain" surrounded on three sides by the Assiniboine River. Now, the Assiniboine surrounds people's houses on all sides.

So residents like John Fulton navigate the river-turned-lake around the homes by canoe. Fulton was spotted preparing to canoe in from the road to his house. Among other items, he was resupplying his home with several cases of bottled water resting in the bottom of his boat.

"Our cistern's contaminated" by flood water, he explained. "(The water) is fine for showers, but you wouldn't want to drink it."

Golden Oak Cove and a neighbouring subdivision have about two dozen houses in total, tucked away north of the Trans-Canada.

"This is a wonderful place to live. I have no problem with sandbagging where we live. It's a way of life," said Fulton, who worked for 30 years for Inco up in Thompson.

Pumps are also a way of life here. Fulton has two of them sending water out of his yard, a third pump in his sump hole for keeping his basement dry, and a fourth "on standby." In his canoe, he was carrying three more pumps -- one more for himself and two for a neighbour.

Of some concern, however, are electrical panels mounted on posts in people's front yards that are becoming dangerously close to the water. Some have less than a foot of freeboard. If the water gets any higher, people will have to get out their generators.

 

She's well-prepared

ELIE -- Having lost her home to one disaster, the tornado of 2007, Jocelyne Godin wanted to make sure she didn't lose it again.

So she built a three-foot cement wall around the front of her house. She had her main floor built about four feet above ground level and she had the ground level raised. "Everybody laughed at me because I built so high," she said.

It doesn't seem like such a crazy idea now. Then again, who ever thought the province would come up with a crazy idea such as a controlled breach of the dike just west of here.

Godin lives along Tornado Alley, a series of new homes south of the railway tracks in Elie where people lost their homes in 2007 and rebuilt.

She recalled the tornado applied so much pressure to her house it "exploded." A mattress was found well down the street, wrapped around a tree. Pieces of her house were in bushes hundreds of metres away. A Christmas card made it all the way to Ste-Agathe, where some thoughtful person returned it to the local municipal office in Elie, 30 kilometres west of the Perimeter Highway.

In fortifying her home, Godin went for a basement, which her old house didn't have, and even built a special windowless room in case a tornado or other disaster struck.

As for the flood, Godin has sandbagged a small portion of her yard, but less than most of her neighbours. Water is expected to just barely cover her yard.

 

Little town, big heart

OAKVILLE -- Neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night can keep these volunteers away.

And Friday there was all that weather and more, including a blustery wind that pelted rain into people's faces as if to add insult to injury.

From Oakville, some 150 to 200 volunteers have been working every day since news came of the controlled breach of the Highway 331 dike west of here. Most of the volunteers are dispersed into the countryside to help anyone and everyone who needs to build a sandbag dike for their property.

The volunteers include Devon Olafson, who booked off work from Yanke Transfer in Winnipeg when he heard people in his community were in trouble. "It's just overwhelming how people here have come together," he said.

Another volunteer is Chris Mihalchuk, who modestly shrugged off his decision to participate. "It's just something you do for the community. Everyone has to chip in," he said,

Friday afternoon, four crews of 30 to 40 people each were out sandbagging in the designated breach area. Some 300 truckloads of sandbags were delivered as of 3 p.m.

In town, the trucks dump the sandbags and volunteers heave them into a front-end loader that empties its bucket into pickup trucks and flatbed trailers to go to the next site.

Murray McLenehan, volunteer co-ordinator of the flood-fighting headquarters, can hardly keep track of all the people who have come to offer their help.

That includes local church groups. Women at a Fannystelle church claimed to make 600 sandwiches per hour for volunteers.

About 50 members of a Hutterite colony are showing up at one time, too. At the volunteer headquarters, Hutterite women dropped off 60 dozen buns and meat to go with them.

As well, local plumbing and construction companies in Oakville are lending salaried staff to help out. Kids from the Oakville School grades 1 to 8 produced handouts on how to build sandbag dikes.

Business donations have come from the likes of McMunn and Yates, Portage Co-op, Fowler Construction, Tim Hortons and Hunt Brothers Building Movers, with its front-end loader and trailer for hauling sandbags.

Oakville only has a population of about 500.

Their work won't stop with the break in the dike. "We're on until someone tells us to stop. We're going 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.," McLenehan said.

 

Farmers frustrated

NEAR ELIE -- "It's chaos around here," Jason Janzen said about preparations for the controlled flood that will cover fields and farmyards like his in this area.

In the four days since learning the family farm he runs with dad Ed was in the path of the planned breach of the dike, which is Highway 331 near Newton, the family has emptied eight grain bins (15,000 bushels), moved a handful of livestock and built a sandbag dike around Ed's house.

The farmyard and driveway look like the site of a giant mud-wrestling match, all rutted every which way from large trucks and equipment working in the soft earth.

"It's government officials playing God," said Jason. "I don't necessarily agree. They're flooding some people and potentially saving other people. But there are no guarantees (the plan will work)."

"It's stressful. What are you going to do?" said Ed.

Jason is particularly perturbed that he just built a new house next door in 2010, and built it to a safe flood level, after he heard his dad describe how the family home took on 18 inches of water on the main floor in the Assiniboine River flood of 1956. He was safe -- before officials started engineering manmade floods.

The Janzens have been aided by friends, fellow church members and students from Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna in building a three-foot-high dike around the family home.

What they can't protect are the yard and all the farm buildings. "We're hoping and praying the water doesn't come into the shop," Ed said.

The place where Highway 331 will be breached is 15 to 20 kilometres away, and they've been told it will take six to seven days to reach them.

The Janzens are in better shape than a nearby neighbour, whose home is lower and who has a six-foot sandbag wall around the house. He was too busy preparing for the flood to grant an interview.

 

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2011 A4

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