Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

1997 flood changed city

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The snow had started falling on Friday evening. On Saturday, I went out to run some errands. By the time I got back to my car I had trouble getting it out of its roadside parking spot. It would be the last time I was able to drive for several days.

On Sunday, I was on the phone in my living room. Its centrepiece was a wonderful marble fireplace. As the blizzard raged outside, flames from the burning wood suddenly shot horizontally into the room as a gust created a tremendous downdraft.

So, for me, began the events leading up to the 1997 Flood of the Century. I have to pinch myself to realize that it was 12 years ago. My stepdaughter and son have turned from children into adults. Time has dulled and possibly altered memories. I couldn't swear that the sequences of events that I described above are accurate. I do remember walking to work the next day in ski goggles and being picked up by a lone taxi and I remember also getting my future partner to promise that we wouldn't live forever in a city that had blizzards in April.

We're still here, at least for half the time and part of the reason might well be that blizzard and subsequent flood. If I were to look for a defining moment when Winnipeg and Manitoba shook off the malaise that had afflicted them for decades, it would be the flood of 1997.

There are many factors for the turnaround. Gary Filmon was still premier during the flood. Susan Thompson was mayor of Winnipeg. Both had managed with fiscal prudence, setting the groundwork for the strong economic performance of the city and province over the past few years.

Both had also worked hard to change the image of the city and province. Famously, Filmon said in his annual State of the Province address to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce that you could tell when a plane arrived from Winnipeg in Ottawa because when the engines stopped you could still hear the whining.

He, like Gary Doer who followed, and Glen Murray who followed Thompson, worked tirelessly to put the complaining, victimized stance of the city and province behind them.

The change has been step by step; Mayor Sam Katz's determination to build the finest small-market ballpark in North America, Mark Chipman's building of the MTS Centre, the deal to build the new Hydro headquarters on Portage Avenue, rising immigration -- all have led to a new confidence.

It may be a coincidence that defeatism began to change to "can-do" at the time of the flood, but I don't think so. The city and province faced a tremendous challenge and came through with flying colours. It was not just the physical challenge, the potential danger and the superhuman effort to build dikes, sandbag homes and evacuate communities, it was also overcoming the mental anguish that the flood brought.

All of this is brought back, of course, by the snow this week, the winter storm warnings from Environment Canada, the water lying in fields and across roads and the real danger of major flooding across the border. No one who was in Winnipeg can forget the devastation the 1997 flood wreaked on Grand Forks, nor the fear that it raised for Winnipeg itself.

So far, no one expects a repeat. But then, no one expected the April blizzard that created the flood of 1997.

Winnipeg came perilously close to a city-wide flood 12 years ago. Much closer than we thought we were at the time. As a result, dikes have been built higher and the floodway has been expanded -- a job not yet finished but good enough to handle a bigger volume of water than 12 years ago.

We are prepared for the worst, but the worst is unlikely.

What is worth remembering is the spirit the flood created. People lost their homes. Grand Pointe went underwater, so did Ste. Agathe. Mistakes were made and the aftermath left damaged houses, displaced people and terrible heartache.

All that was overcome. The determination that rebuilt Grand Forks also affected Winnipeg and Manitoba. The flood was like a cold shower: a bracing wake-up call. The army, the emergency services and the people of the province responded to potential disaster with a determination that would bring a new-found confidence across the province. We are unlikely to be tested in that way this year, but if we are, we are more ready than we were 12 years ago. They say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Manitobans came together in the Flood of the Century and haven't looked back.

 

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2009 A13

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