‘Catastrophic’ flooding blow to Whiteshell outfitters Province to assess damage before deciding on financial aid
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Pine Island Lodge owner Brian Burgess had hoped 2022 would be a time for recovery and a return to normal after a two-year disruption due to the pandemic.
Instead, Burgess and fellow lodge owners in Whiteshell Provincial Park are dealing with record flooding that has brought more hardship during what was shaping up to be a busy tourist season.
“In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s a catastrophic, once-in-a-lifetime flood,” Burgess said by phone from his lodge on Pine Island, located on the swollen Winnipeg River near the Manitoba-Ontario boundary. “It’s a tough enough business world we’re in. To have this is very devastating.
“I would hope the province would consider some kind of financial aid for lodges and outfitters. It’s just devastation right through the (watershed).”
“In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s a catastrophic, once-in-a-lifetime flood.” – Pine Island Lodge owner Brian Burgess
The eastern Manitoba lodge, which has been in Burgess’s family since 1950, has been forced to cancel bookings. Multiple groups were supposed to stay over the May long weekend.
Floodwater has swamped some of the lodge’s buildings, including a duplex cabin for guests, a four-bedroom cabin for staff and a utility and work shed.
Sandbagging is not an option on the remote island, which is accessible only by boat or float plane.
Burgess said it’s too dangerous to make the 40-minute boat ride from Pointe du Bois, about 130 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
The bloated river is filled with debris, including entire trees, and the Lamprey Rapids, northeast of Pointe du Bois, are treacherous.
For Whiteshell property owners, the flood fight is far from finished.
The province expects water levels on the Winnipeg River system to rise by another one to two feet before peaking in early June.
A significant amount of water is flowing into the system from Lake of the Woods and Lac Seul in northwestern Ontario.
River and lake levels, which have surged due to record precipitation since April 1, will remain high for several weeks.
Many properties, highways and roads are already under water amid a local state of emergency and a mandatory evacuation order for hard-hit areas in north Whiteshell.
“It’s still flooding all over, and it’s basically (a situation of) trying to guess where it’s going to be and trying to sandbag there,” said D.J. Seales, president of the North Whiteshell Business Association. “The water is coming up fairly quick.”
Dikes have been built at a number of lodges, including Nutimik, Otter Falls and Riverview.
Seales, who owns Barrier Bay Resort, said lodge owners are exhausted.
“For some of them, they’ve been sandbagging for a couple of weeks now,” he said. “It’s not only your home, it’s your livelihood.”
As bookings are cancelled, Seales encouraged customers to be kind and patient with owners who are trying to save their properties.
“For some of them (lodge owners), they’ve been sandbagging for a couple of weeks now… It’s not only your home, it’s your livelihood.” – D.J. Seales
The province expanded its evacuation order at 5 p.m. Tuesday to include Sylvia Lake, Eleanor Lake, Otter Falls, Barrier Bay and Nutimik Lake.
Some owners stayed behind to continue the fight, while others raced to reinforce dikes and secure belongings before leaving.
Brent Johnson and family members left Monday night after spending 11 days building and raising a sandbag dike around their cottage on Margaret Lake in Otter Falls.
Neighbours and volunteers helped build it to a height of about two metres.
“We’re just absolutely exhausted in every conceivable manner,” said Johnson, who was back at work in Winnipeg on Tuesday. “In a way, it’s strangely relieving we had to leave because it meant putting a stop to the efforts. We did everything we possibly could. Now, we wait and hope for the best.”
Before they left, the family emptied the cottage and chained a boat to two trees to prevent it from floating away if the water rises high enough.
Four pumps were left running inside the dike to get rid of water that seeps in.
Johnson said he is aware of a few owners who were planning to stay behind to protect their properties, despite the evacuation order.
“Nobody has seen anything like this. It’s completely unprecedented,” he said of water levels. “It was really disheartening to see the people who’d lost the battle already.”
Many owners face having to do repairs or alterations once lakes and rivers retreat within their banks.
“It is going to take years for everybody to recover from this,” said Johnson.
“It is going to take years for everybody to recover from this.” – Brent Johnson
Premier Heather Stefanson was joined by cabinet ministers and NDP Leader Wab Kinew on an aerial tour of Whiteshell lakes Tuesday morning.
After they landed at a private terminal at Winnipeg’s airport, she praised flood fighters and defended the province’s handling of the disaster, including the support and communication provided to those affected.
“There is so much water out there, it’s overwhelming,” she said. “Our thoughts go out to those who’ve been negatively impacted. The water levels are continuing to rise out there, and so we’re not through this yet.”
Responding to calls for financial aid, Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Doyle Piwniuk said the province is in “response mode,” and will eventually carry out damage assessments before deciding on a program.
Wet weather could prolong high water levels.
Environment Canada’s short-term forecast for the Whiteshell predicts sun and daytime highs between 22 C and 25 C until Friday. The chance of rain increases from Friday night throughout the weekend.
The forecast for northwestern Ontario calls for a chance of showers every day this week.
Kurtis Cline, Manitoba Parks’ manager for the Whiteshell, said Ontario officials are “happy” with current water flows, as dams in that area “can handle what’s coming.”
Several areas in southern and central Manitoba have been dealing with severe flooding.
Heavy rain and saturated ground have disrupted spring seeding for farmers, who went through a drought last year.
About 10 per cent of crops have been planted, well below the five-year average of 77 per cent for mid-May, according to a Manitoba Crop Report published Tuesday.
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, May 24, 2022 8:40 PM CDT: Adds photo
Updated on Wednesday, May 25, 2022 7:08 AM CDT: Fixes photo cutlines