PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man. - The Manitoba government appeared confident but cautious Wednesday as the swollen Assiniboine River crested near Portage La Prairie.
Less than a week after Premier Greg Selinger declared a state of emergency — prompting hundreds of soldiers, crews and others to frantically prepare sandbags and strengthen dikes around communities and rural properties — the premier said all the flood-fighting measures were in place.
"So far, the dikes are looking pretty solid, but they're being monitored 24/7," Selinger said after touring the area.
"Our officials, our engineers ... felt that the dikes are in much better shape than the last time (in 2011). They're drier, they're higher. But again, there could be risks and we can't take anything for granted."
Heavy rain as far upstream as Saskatchewan has pushed the Assiniboine near its limit. Even the Portage Diversion — a channel that drains excess water from the river — was near its capacity Wednesday.
An estimated 720 people have been forced to leave their homes across the province — the vast majority as a precautionary measure due to fears that roads might be swamped. Actual flooding of homes has been "minimal" says the government, which could not provide an exact number.
Across the region, another 200 homes are considered vulnerable to rising waters. And another 150 homes could be at risk if the province decided to cut a dike at the Hoop and Holler Bend to ease pressure on the Assiniboine. The government has stressed that would be a last resort that appeared to be unnecessary as of Wednesday.
This spring and summer have been so wet that the province issued a warning Wednesday of a second crest on the Assiniboine later in the week
The second crest was forecast to reach Brandon, the province's second-largest city, by Saturday and be slightly smaller than the initial crest that had the city on alert last week.
Still, things could change, depending on the weather, said Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton said.
"I would say this is a moving forecast," Ashton said at the province's daily flood briefing in Winnipeg.
The second crest would have much less impact downstream near Portage La Prairie because other tributaries to the Assiniboine have started dropping.
For the immediate future, officials are focusing on ensuring that dikes and shorelines don't give way to the surging water. Military helicopters are surveying the region to look for any failures in the dikes.
"We're going to have to just stay very vigilant," Selinger told reporters.
"There's going to be still a lot of water moving. It doesn't just automatically drop quickly and everything goes back to normal."
Meanwhile, RCMP issued a news release Wednesday night asking the public to stay clear of the Portage Diversion.
"RCMP have been encountering members of the public who have been stopping and taking photographs along the Portage Diversion, particularly on the Trans-Canada Highway just west of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba," said the release.
"Due to high water levels, this is an emergency area, where emergency personnel are working and heavy equipment is in use. Vehicles stopped along the roadway and people walking in the affected areas are creating hazards for traffic and emergency personnel."
— by Steve Lambert in Winnipeg