Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Waiting for water to come

Towns along Red fortified for flood

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MORRIS -- Back in April 1997, before the Red River became a sea, Emerson Mayor Wayne Arseny got a phone call from a reporter in Toronto who asked a simple question: "How many sandbags do you have?"

Arseny was a little stumped. "I don't know. Five?" "You mean, 5,000?" the confused reporter asked.

"No," Arseny replied. "Five."

That was before the army arrived, before the town was evacuated for almost a month and before a temporary six-foot-high plywood wall was erected on top of the town's dike. And before most of the real estate between Emerson and Winnipeg looked like the set of the movie Waterworld.

Times have changed. These days, the Emerson dike has been built two feet higher than the 1997 Red River crest. When the crest peaks again this spring, the dike will be patrolled around the clock by local firefighters on the lookout for soft spots or gopher holes.

"It's been a big change since '97," Arseny said. "There's a calm about the emergency we face now. It's more of a process of being watchful."

That's about all that's left to do now -- watch.

On Friday, Premier Greg Selinger and provincial flood officials made a quick tour of the rural front lines against Red River flooding, which this spring is being forecast as "moderate to high risk."

Arseny is well aware of forecasts in North Dakota for a snowfall between 15 and 20 centimetres this weekend. Precipitation is also expected in southern Manitoba.

"It's an ongoing process of staying on top of it (flood forecasts) while preparations go on," Selinger said, "then giving people as much warning as possible to know what's coming at them. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

"Keeping in touch with the local officials that run the local emergency committees and having our provincial officials out here just increases the flow of communication, so when something needs to get done, it can get done rapidly," the premier said.

"People know each other on a first-name basis. They have the communications channels clearly identified, and that makes all the difference in a crisis."

The ring dikes built and fortified around communities along the Red since 1997 have lessened the drama of floods. However, the vulnerability of Highway 75 remains a key concern for residents in communities such as Emerson and Morris.

Selinger reiterated Friday it's "highly likely" Highway 75 will be closed again this spring due to flooding. In 2009, the highway was closed for 38 days. "If it goes to that (2009) level, it's likely, almost certain, that the road will be closed for a period of time," the premier said.

Morris Mayor Gavin van der Linde said raising Highway 75 between the communities of Aubigny and St. Jean Baptiste, a stretch of about 35 kilometres, is under consideration.

"The main issue facing us is an economic one when the highway shuts down, as well as the inconvenience of driving around town," van der Linde said.

"In the past, the province has done a really good job of protecting homes and communities. Now, it's moving into a phase where the infrastructure needs to be protected, and Highway 75 is the key piece of infrastructure that needs to be protected."

Arseny agreed, noting "the last thing a community wants is to get cut off."

Van der Linde and Selinger cautioned that plans to raise Highway 75 must first ensure other communities and area farmland are not hurt.

"We want to find a solution that will ensure not only Morris is better off, but everybody is better off," Selinger said.

Is the premier preparing Manitobans for the worst?

"I said from the very beginning we shouldn't take anything for granted," Selinger replied.

"Remember in 1997 we had that big storm in April... and that made all the difference in terms of how the '97 situation got. You will recall the newspapers saying, 'Whew, no floods'.

"Then a week later we're into one of the worst floods in the history of the province."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 A4

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