Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Headline Makers: Alf Warkentin

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CLAIM TO FAME:

Nobody knows more about the highs and lows of the Red River and all of its tributaries.

 

EARLY START:

Warkentin recalls, as a nine-year-old standing on the old Norwood Bridge, witnessing the drama of the bursting Red during the 1950 flood. "It was a pretty rough river... I saw outhouses and I saw some remnants of garages, and they would typically hit the bridge and then get smashed and get pulled under," he said.

As a boy growing up on a dairy farm near Grunthal, Warkentin said he had "a natural interest" in water. Every spring, he was out in the fields standing in water to the top of his rubber boots.

Warkentin studied math and physics in university and tried his hand at several things -- including one year teaching school, a winter in Churchill supporting NASA's rocket range research program, and three years as a meteorologist with Environment Canada -- before joining the provincial government as a flood forecaster in 1970.

Since then, he's become a familiar name in the news every time there's been a major flood in Manitoba -- something that seems to be occurring with greater frequency. At age 67, with nearly 40 years on the job, he had the gruelling task of predicting river levels and flows for the second-biggest Red River flood in more than 100 years this spring.

SCARIEST MOMENT OF THE FLOOD:

On Easter weekend when ice was jamming the floodway inlet and an "ice run" was heading towards Winnipeg, with the "real threat" it would block the floodway, causing Red River levels to shoot up. "It was a close call, but luckily the ice... managed to go through the St. Mary's Bridge," Warkentin said.

 

LONG HOURS:

Warkentin has been on the job every day without a break since March 8, and he doesn't anticipate he'll get a day off until May 9 at the earliest. When Red River flooding was at its peak, he started his day at 8 a.m. and left work at 11 at night.

This past Sunday night, he decided to drive down Provincial Road 200 near the floodway structure to take a look at the flooded area for himself, what he called a "reality check."

"I saw some houses with lights on, there, totally surrounded by water and a boat moored near the back door. It just reminded me that there's still a pretty big flood going on" and that he had a lot more to do.

 

LIFE AFTER ALF:

At age 67, he probably won't be around for too many more big floods. Asked whether this is his last flood, Warkentin responded: "I'm going to be mute on that one."

He said he still likes the work, although he can do without all the stress of dealing with a major flood. Mark Ewens, a North Dakota-based flood expert with the U.S. National Weather Service, has been swapping information with Warkentin for decades. "I just wonder who is going to be filling his shoes," Ewens said, referring to the years of knowledge and experience that Warkentin will take with him to retirement. "It's going to be quite the chore."

 

-- Larry Kusch

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2009 A11

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