Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Scramble on to keep waters at bay

Equipment, volunteers join last-ditch effort

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Hundreds pitch in: Winnipeg and the Red River Valley were a hive of muddy activity on Thursday as flood waters reached levels not seen since the Flood of the Century in 1997.

As Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz declared a state of emergency for portions of the city, hundreds of people stood shoulder to shoulder with their friends, neighbours and total strangers sandbagging properties to protect them from the rising Red and Assiniboine rivers.

Several Free Press reporters spent the day on the front lines of the fight against the rising water, talking to nervous homeowners, evacuees, and the good people of Winnipeg who volunteered to heave sandbags.

 

 

The St Norbert home is the first house inside the protection of the Red River Floodway, but Thursday officials and workers had to scramble quickly to save it.

Heavy equipment began pushing tonnes of crushed rock to shore up a ring dike around 140 Turnbull Drive, which was being eroded by the fast-flowing Red River just a few hundred metres north of the floodway gates and bridge.

Homeowner Don Bell said he, his wife Bonnie and three foster children had to be evacuated from their home in the morning by firefighters in a boat when the river level rose higher and threatened the dike.

"It went too high... higher than they thought it would," Bell said.

"The city and our local councillor (Justin Swandel) have been really great. They've been watching the dike."

Winnipeg Fire Lieut. Michael Sparks said the rescue had to be carried out in case the dike suddenly collapsed.

Ken Skaftfeld, an engineer with AECOM, said he gave the green light for the crushed rock to be placed after determining the clay dike could withstand equipment on it.

"The dike is eroding on the outside, but things are under control right now," Skaftfeld said, adding about half of the dike on the river side had been eaten away.

Bell said this will be the last flood his home will need to be protected from by a ring dike. He needed dikes during floods in 1996 and 1997.

"We're moving it (the house) high enough so we'll never have to do this again," he said, pointing to orange pylons which were high and dry farther up on his front lawn.

"We've been trying to get the company here to move it for two years, but they've been too busy.

"I researched it before we bought this house. This house hadn't been flooded since the 1950 flood -- and that was before the floodway (was built). We thought with the floodway we'd be safe, but I guess not."

Swandel said a lot of the costs for moving the house will be paid for from money left over from flood-protection money contributed by the three levels of government in 1997.

"Doing this (building a ring dike) is costing us a fortune -- it's better to just move the house," the councillor said.

* * *

A large water pump is working full time after water from the rising Assiniboine River inundated part of a Roslyn Road apartment building's basement parkade.

The pump, which is capable of pumping up to 3,000 gallons of water per minute, has been set up outside 21 Roslyn Rd., where residents said the lower parkade had taken in water from the river.

As well, local MP Anita Neville said the flooding in the building caused five people with disabilities to be evacuated because there is water in the elevator shafts.

"All the cars are out of there," said one resident who asked not to be named.

"The parking ban has been lifted along the street by the city and you can also park in the Safeway parking lot."

The resident said so far it's not as bad as the flood in 1997, when flooding in the parkade forced a month-long evacuation from the building.

"But we have already evacuated our cats."

* * *

Downtown residents Annabelle and Roger Stokes were pleased staff at a local call centre came in person -- instead of just phoning.

The couple, who live just metres away from the rising Assiniboine River in a house at 436 Assiniboine Ave., received help sandbagging on Thursday from more than a dozen volunteers from the local office of Convergys, an international call-centre company.

"I thought it was amazing, letting people from a company come out to help," a grateful Annabelle said.

"Last night (Tuesday) the city dropped off 500 sandbags and another 500 today (Wednesday). At this point I won't say I am confident... I am worried.

"I felt I should go to bed with water wings."

Sonya Bertoncello-Dale, a Convergys spokeswoman, said the 14 people slinging sandbags volunteered immediately.

"We have managers here, agents, quality department, operations manager, and a team supervisor -- we even have the daughter and her friend of someone who couldn't make it," Bertoncello-Dale said.

"One of our corporate principles is to be a good neighbour... the leadership decided this is the right thing to do."

* * *

St. Adolphe issued a voluntary evacuation order to more than 150 residents outside of the ring dike, as the Red River swallowed fields, surrounded homes, and washed out several major roads.

Rural Municipality of Ritchot Mayor Bob Stefaniuk said the evacuation order was issued as a precaution to ensure that anyone who wanted to leave homes isolated by the surge of water could stay in a Winnipeg hotel if they chose.

Stefaniuk said many homes outside the ring dike have erected permanent or temporary structural dikes to hold flood water back, and some residents are content to boat in until the water recedes.

"Some people don't mind staying and boating, and others want to get out."

About 40 residents of the St. Adolphe Personal Care Home were moved to Winnipeg as a precaution.

Volunteers can still get to St. Adolphe via Highway 75. Stefaniuk said sandbags are being sent to some homes by boat or large trucks.

Strong winds created a rush of water over area roads that residents said was at least three feet deep in places.

Rick Meilleur lives outside the St. Adolphe ring dike and said the current has become so strong that most area residents have stopped trying to cross flooded roads with ATVs and trucks.

Meilleur plans to stay inside his home, saying it will be protected with a temporary wooden wall held up by steel beams and reinforced with sandbags.

He pointed to the water level mark left behind by the 1997 flood, and said he doubts a wall of water is headed his way this time around.

"They keep changing their minds," Meilleur said of the flood forecast. "Nobody knows. (But) I was hoping I'd never have to set (this dike) up."

-- Kevin Rollason and Jen Skerritt

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2009 A4

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