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Manitoba prepares for the possibility of major flooding this spring

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WINNIPEG - This month's heavy snowfall on the Prairies has the Manitoba government warning that major flooding is possible this spring and that people will probably be forced from their homes.

But Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton says the province is not expecting the situation to be as bad as it was in 2011, when the military was called in to help and the final bill totalled $1.2 billion.

The flood of 2011 was one of the worst on record. Thousands of people were forced from swamped houses and cottages along the Assiniboine River, Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. Many First Nations residents have not returned to their homes.

Ashton says that right now it looks like there will be a flood similar to 2009 when about 500 homes were deluged with water or damaged by shifting frozen slabs. Damage totalled about $60 million.

"No one is pressing any panic button," Ashton said Tuesday at a news conference in Winnipeg.

"Our key goal through the upcoming weeks and month is to minimize impacts on people. There probably will be evacuations so there will be impacts at that level, but we are going to do whatever we can in terms of using all the tools available to us to minimize that impact."

Just last month, the province had said there was only a small risk of substantial flooding along major riverways. But March snowfall was 200 per cent more than normal in much of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota, leading to increased concern.

Flood preparations are an annual ritual in Manitoba, where melt water comes from as far away as Alberta and South Dakota.

As usual, much depends on the weather over the next several weeks: how quickly the snow melts, whether major dumps of snow or rain occur at the same time as the melt and whether unpredictable ice jams develop.

The worst of the damage in 2009 occurred just north of Winnipeg, where shifting ice jams caused sudden rises in the river.

South of the capital, roads were washed out and farmland was flooded, but residents were well protected by ring dikes and by homes that were moved onto or constructed on higher ground after the so-called flood of the century in 1997.

The province has an array of weapons designed to keep water flowing smoothly. Three amphibious icebreakers are used to break up rivers. There are dikes built around many smaller communities and diversion channels move water around larger cities.

Winnipeg is protected by the Red River Floodway — a 47-kilometre- long channel that diverts water around the city to the east and north.

Ashton noted that things have changed in the areas just north of Winnipeg since 2009. People who owned some of the most flood-prone properties in rural municipalities such as St. Clements and St. Andrews were bought out and moved.

Ashton said the areas of most concern this year are the Fisher River and Peguis First Nations, about 200 kilometres north of the provincial capital. Both places were also hit hard in 2009.

"We're going to be watching the situation on the Fisher River very closely," the minister said. "There are some scenarios where there could potentially be significant evacuations and a significant need to protect homes."

Ashton, a New Democrat, said flooding has been a persistent problem in that area and little has been done to prevent it. He said he will be in contact with the federal government as the flood season goes on.

Ashton's daughter, Niki Ashton, an NDP M, took that point to the floor of the House of Commons on Tuesday.

"In 2009 and 2011, First Nations were disproportionately impacted by flooding," she said in question period. "Yet since those floods, the government has done virtually nothing to provide permanent flood protection to communities like Fisher River and Peguis."

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, also a Manitoba MP, noted the prime minister promised $100 million for flood mitigation in 2011. Toews said discussions are underway with the provinces about how to develop an ongoing program.

"We will wait to see what happens, but I am very confident that the Emergency Measures Organization in Manitoba that is on the front lines is doing a good job in terms of preparedness," Toews said.

Flood preparations are also underway in earnest upstream from Manitoba in North Dakota.

Officials in the Fargo area have outlined plans to fill more than one million sandbags. Fargo is moving its garbage trucks out of a storage warehouse to make room for three machines that can fill 5,000 bags an hour.

The North Dakota National Guard says there are more than 2,000 soldiers and airmen who are prepared to help.

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