Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bracing for whatever evil may come

Residents in Assiniboine's path on alert

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HEADINGLEY -- After the signs went up to close the roads, garden tractors ruled.

Under Tuesday morning's grey and heavy sky, the one-person vehicles puttered down Roblin Boulevard, carting sandbags to the front line that slashed through nearby backyards. And the backyards in this part of Headingley are luscious: long plots of emerald green, skirted by the rushing Assiniboine River.

Beautiful properties, but dangerously close to the river.

If you'd asked some residents last week, they might have said they had this flood in the bag. By Tuesday, things had changed.

"We put this one down thinking this would be enough," Mike Blackmore said, pointing at the orange tiger dam snaking past his porch.

On Monday night, flood officials came. They stuck a stake in the ground with a bright orange tip: that's how high the dikes have to reach, now. Two feet higher than the tiger dam. Have residents seen anything like this before? "No," Blackmore shakes his head. "Nowhere near this, at all."

Few in this area have. On Tuesday, Premier Greg Selinger spoke of the "unprecedented" surge along the Assiniboine; as the province readied its gutsy plan to cut through a dike at Hoop and Holler Bend and release a controlled flow of water, area administrators rushed to shore up their protection.

The goal: get all the dikes to the levels of the 1976 flood, the worst in the Assiniboine's recorded history, plus three more feet. "We've been prepared since October," said RM of Cartier CAO Anne Burns, at the first of this week's many morning press conferences at the RM of St. Francois-Xavier's municipality office.

"We knew the west was very wet. We had lakes in Cartier last summer. We prepared. We got pumps, we got sandbags... but (did we expect it) to this magnitude? Absolutely not."

Burns is the administrative rep for the so-called CaSH region: Cartier, St. Francois-Xavier and Headingley. With a southwest swath of her rural municipality due to be swamped by the proposed "controlled breakout zones," and the northeast half expected to be helped by them, Burns is juggling an ever-shifting job.

"If they don't do a controlled breach, there's always the risk it's going to break anyway," she said. "What is the better of the two evils?"

And so Cartier is bracing for whatever evil may come. On Monday night, letters went out to all the RM's residents, warning that evacuation may be necessary: get the valuables out of the basements, it advised, make sure you have all your prescription medications handy.

Employees at the RM's office in Elie are working to protect their files; seven Hutterite colonies facing severe flooding are working with the province to move livestock to higher ground. "We're concentrating on the critical areas," Burns said, noting the military was expected to arrive in the area on Tuesday.

But where the military wasn't, hundreds of volunteers were busy building up the lines.

Across the Assiniboine from St. Francois-Xavier, a clutch of elegant houses sit on what look like islands, as the river's spill creeps across lawns and driveways. Garter snakes zip angrily across the road, fleeing underground dens now flush with water.

Almost every house is sandbagged; after days and weeks of effort, sandbaggers here move like a well-oiled machine. At one house, a Free Press photographer asked if he can snap some photos. "Sure, if you don't get in the way," the homeowner replied, not skipping a beat as she briskly directed the line of volunteers heaving bags in perfect rhythm.

Around the corner, Bryan Ezako slogged through his front yard in hip-waders, pushing a boat piled with sandbags over what used to be his driveway. The only thing keeping his house dry is the dike he built last week; on Monday he learned he must raise it even higher.

"Everyone's exhausted," he said, waiting for another tractor-load of bags to be dumped on his stump of dry road.

"It's just a matter of, can we win the battle?"

This is the sort of house the Hoop and Holler Cut will aim to save -- whatever that means. "If you take a look around," Ezako sighed, looking at his lake-like yard, "I'm not sure what the definition of 'saved' is."

Still, some of his neighbours are cautiously optimistic.

Terence Bergmann's house is built on higher ground, and isn't likely to flood; he will sandbag anyway, once his neighbours' houses are done. So far, the water hasn't even reached his garage, where it lapped during the flood of 1997.

And with the Hoop and Holler Cut coming, he said, the flood figures look promising for the area -- and some residents are starting to turn their concerns to the even wetter west.

"Most of us who have been here for awhile, we feel a bit more confident," Bergmann said.

"I think we've got (the neighbours) well protected by the controlled cut scenario. We don't know... if we should be going up the highway and helping someone else."


Cattle emergency

After suffering through flooded fields and loss of pasture land, Manitoba cattle producers are faced with the prospect of moving up to 100,000 animals from flood-affected areas to avoid stranding their herds.

The province declared a livestock emergency on Tuesday to allow farmers priority access to closed roads and Crown land.

Cattle producers in the Portage la Prairie area are already struggling. On the west side of the Portage Diversion, one farmer was struggling to move his herd into livestock trucks, with the help of friends and neighbours.


More soldiers on way

An additional 300 soldiers from Edmonton have been called will be used to protect homes in the area impacted by the controlled breakout of the Assiniboine River into the La Salle River watershed, Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton said Tuesday.

Manitoba's senior MP, Vic Toews, approved the request quickly, Ashton said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2011 A4

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