Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Flood disaster unfolds

Military called in as Assiniboine River level rises

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Provincial flood officials are in crisis mode today as predictions for a huge Assiniboine River flood seemingly grow more dire by the hour.

The government announced late Friday it will begin preparatory work today for a controlled breach of the Assiniboine River southeast of Portage la Prairie at the Hoop and Holler bend -- just as it did during the 2011 flood.

Less than seven hours earlier, as he declared a provincial state of emergency and announced the province had called in the military to aid with the flood fight, Premier Greg Selinger said there were no immediate plans for a Hoop and Holler cut.

But two things changed during the course of the day: Flood forecasters briefed their political masters an even greater amount of water was headed towards Portage la Prairie than they had thought that morning. And the water would arrive days earlier than previously thought.

It's now believed some 200 rural homes along the Assiniboine River east of Portage la Prairie -- and another 150 properties downstream from the planned controlled breach -- will have to be protected by Monday or Tuesday.

Troops from CFB Shilo were to be deployed beginning today to sandbag homes and shore up Assiniboine River dikes east of Portage la Prairie.

'Our priority remains ensuring the safety of Manitobans and doing everything we can to protect homes and businesses'

-- Premier Greg Selinger

"We have updated the Canadian Forces with these new projections and the need for more resources more quickly," the premier said Friday night.

"Our priority remains ensuring the safety of Manitobans and doing everything we can to protect homes and businesses. We will continue to keep Manitobans informed daily of this unfolding natural disaster."

A total of 52,000 to 54,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water is now expected to enter the Portage reservoir when the Assiniboine crests there early next week, up from 48,000 to 52,000 predicted Thursday.

Preparatory work at the site of the Hoop and Holler cut was expected to begin today. The province began informing affected municipalities Friday night about the area that could be "inundated" with as much as 5,000 cfs of water -- a volume roughly equivalent to half the current Assiniboine River flow east of Portage la Prairie -- so they could contact homeowners.

These will be largely the same homeowners affected when the province engineered the last river breach three years ago.

"To the people of Manitoba, we have been through this all too recently," a shirt-sleeved and tieless Selinger told a news conference at the legislative building earlier in the day. "During the 2011 flood, I remember the great pride we felt, and I felt, as everybody came together to look after each other. I know that same fighting spirit will be evident in the days ahead."

Selinger said he spoke with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday to inform him of the crisis. A final decision to call in the military was made Friday morning.

There was no immediate word on how many troops would be deployed.

The military was called in on three separate occasions in 2011 to help Manitobans cope with what was then termed a once-in-300-year flood.

The looming flood along the lower Assiniboine River is not expected to last as long as the one three years ago -- unless the eastern Prairies are repeatedly pounded by major storms.

High river levels are still expected to persist for weeks.

Declaring a state of emergency allows officials to enter properties to build flood fortifications.

Lee Spencer, acting executive director of the Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization, said a team of provincial officials and outside consultants was inspecting the dikes east of Portage la Prairie on Friday.

The province is aware of several weak spots and has asked municipalities to list any others they feel may be vulnerable to high flows.

"We're still collecting the information, but it will inform the work plan that's going to happen to keep the dikes holding," Spencer said.

The government has spent more than $20 million since early 2011 on shoring up Assiniboine River dikes and studying how to proceed with permanent dike upgrades.

In the long term, the government wants to fully upgrade the vulnerable stretch of river diking -- increasing the river's capacity -- so it won't have to go cap in hand to the military every time there is a major flood.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2014 A3

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