RM of PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- As early as noon today, excavators may sink their metal teeth into Provincial Road 331 to relieve some of the pressure from an engorged Assiniboine River.
First, heavy machines will tear a 65-metre-wide hole in the stretch of highway known as Hoop and Holler Bend. If all goes according to the plan, tonnes of limestone and river stone placed at either end of the gap will prevent the Assiniboine from gouging out an even larger spillway.
Water will then rush at a rate of 2,000 to 6,000 cubic feet per second across a muddy market-garden plot, over a gravel road and straight up the front drive of the home Sandor Arendse purchased in November to ensure his wife and infant son were less at risk of getting flooded.
"I thought we were going to be the lucky ones this year," the 29-year-old onion grower said Tuesday on his front lawn, as employees from his father's farm unloaded sandbags from a flatbed truck.
"They're not going to stop the water. They're just going to slow it down," he said, referring to the effects of sandbags on the full force of the Hoop and Holler Cut.
The hole in the road is intended to allow the Assiniboine to spill into the Elm River on its way to the La Salle River and eventually the Red River, flooding out 150 residential properties and 225 square kilometres of land southeast of Portage la Prairie in what the province calls a "controlled breakout." Tuesday night, the RM of Portage la Prairie issued a voluntary evacuation order for 150 homes.
The alternative to the cut is to allow the Assiniboine to spill on its own, potentially flooding out 850 properties and 500 square kilometres between of Portage la Prairie and Headingley.
The cut is part of a broader, last-ditch effort to combat a one-in-300-year flood on the normally placid Assiniboine, which is expected to flow as high as 56,000 cfs west of Portage la Prairie within days.
In a move reminiscent of the construction of the Brunkild Z-dike during the 1997 Red River flood, the province has contracted a small army of backhoes and bulldozers to increase the capacity of the Portage Diversion, which carries Assiniboine River water north to Lake Manitoba.
The channel was built to divert 25,000 cfs, but the province hopes to send up to 34,000 cfs through the diversion within days. Its ability to handle the additional flow -- as well as rainfall in the coming days -- will determine whether the Hoop and Holler Cut must be made, Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton said on Tuesday.
"We will use it if necessary, but we won't necessarily use it," he said.
Only days ago, the province expected the Assiniboine River to reach no more than 37,400 cfs west of Portage. Now, officials concede they were forced to choose which residents will be flooded.
"The people who will be affected by the controlled release are without question playing a key role in our fight to contain the unprecedented flows on the Assiniboine River," Ashton told the legislature. "They are doing so by storing waters on the lands on very little notice."
Ashton said province will develop a special compensation program for families and farmers hit by this flooding.
"This was not an easy decision," top flood fighter Steve Topping added. "But this has not been an easy flood."
Since the province first announced the Hoop and Holler plan, residents in the wake of the expected flow have scrambled to move possessions from their basements and build sandbag dikes around their homes.
Many are receiving help from friends, neighbours and complete strangers. All are shocked by the short lead time and scattershot notification.
"I understand what they're doing. What frustrates me is the short notice," said Bob Kriski, a Portage la Prairie school vice-principal who spent Tuesday building a sandbag dike around his home, with help from members of the Norquay Hutterite Colony.
Lourens Arendse, who operates the 450-acre farm that employs his son and up to 60 workers at peak times, said he believes the province underestimated the economic value of the vegetable producers being sacrificed in his region.
Portage la Prairie MLA David Faurschou said the province should have consulted area residents before deciding to flood them out.
But University of Manitoba civil engineering professor Jay Doering called the Hoop and Holler Cut a logical move, given the proximity of the Assiniboine to the source of the Elm River.
"Better to control where it's going than to have the water decide for you," Doering said.
Harper to take tour
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will tour Manitoba's flood zone today.
Harper is expected to arrive at Southport at 11:15 a.m. for a briefing on the flooding with Premier Greg Selinger, an advisory from the prime minister's office said last night.
On Sunday, Harper agreed to send in the troops to help Manitoba battle the rising Assiniboine River. Defence Minister Peter MacKay toured the RM of Portage la Prairie on Tuesday.
Today, Harper will arrive just before provincial crews are expected to punch a hole in the Assiniboine River dike at noon to conduct a controlled flood. The deliberate spill southeast of Portage la Prairie is expected to affect 150 homes and 225 square kilometres of land to prevent an uncontrolled breach that could affect 850 homes in a 500 square-kilometre area.
After the briefing at Southport, Harper and Selinger are expected to tour the areas affected by flooding, including Brandon, the advisory said.
Evacuee numbers swell
As of Tuesday, 2,743 Manitobans were displaced by the flood, including about 1,000 Brandon residents. Residents of 42 homes just south of Lake Manitoba were put on notice to leave their homes when flooding cuts off access roads.
With more expected in the Portage Diversion in the coming days, the channel will likely spill its banks, sending water east and west.