‘We refuse to give up, but we need help’: lodge owners struggle against flood tide
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Exhausted from days of battling rising floodwater, the owners of a lodge in Whiteshell Provincial Park are begging for more help after the province closed the disaster zone.
Allison Baker-Thiessen, who runs Nutimik Lodge with her husband, Harry Thiessen, said she feels “stranded” while they try to protect their livelihood from record flooding.
“Nobody’s coming to help us. I don’t think they understand how bad we really need it,” said Baker-Thiessen, who became emotional during a phone interview Wednesday. “We refuse to give up, but we need help.”
She issued the plea a day after the province expanded its mandatory evacuation order in northern Whiteshell, affecting about 600 cottages, six businesses and 500 campsites.
People are barred from entering or residing in the closure area, but some cottage and lodge owners have stayed behind to continue the fight.
“We have volunteers that are willing to come in, but they won’t let me bring anybody,” Baker-Thiessen said, referring to a checkpoint on Provincial Road 307, which is closed from the northern park gate to the PR 309 junction.
Two cabins and a garage filled with freezers and equipment are among the flooded buildings at Nutimik Lodge, which the couple has owned for five months.
Thiessen had to rebuild one of the dikes Tuesday night after it broke, said Baker-Thiessen, who is worried they will run out of sandbags.
She spoke to the Free Press as she waited for provincial staff to arrive and help sandbag efforts. The province has supplied Tiger Dams (water-filled tubes which act as flood barriers).
“We refuse to give up, but we need help.”– Allison Baker-Thiessen
An extra pump dropped off by a Manitoba Parks employee was broken, said Baker-Thiessen.
A spokesman for the province said more staff have been sent to do tasks, such as sandbagging and security, and more equipment will be sent as needed.
He pointed out residents were asked to leave the evacuation zone by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
“The nature of the flooding is such that it is not safe for residents to continue the flood fight beyond that time,” the spokesman wrote in an email.
Brynn Kaplen, who spent May long weekend helping sandbagging efforts near Nutimik, where her in-laws have a cottage, said property owners who left are hoping the order isn’t extended beyond June 6.
“It’s hard not being able to see what’s happening now. I think people are nervous for the potential of vandalism or break-ins at their properties,” she said. “I hope everybody (still there) is safe. Things can be replaced but people can’t.”
Baker-Thiessen said lodge owners want the province to offer disaster financial assistance to cover repairs and loss of income after being forced to cancel bookings.
“I hope everybody (still there) is safe. Things can be replaced but people can’t.”– Brynn Kaplen
Amy Vereb, who co-owns and runs Otter Falls Resort with her husband, Daniel, would welcome financial aid after losing out on cabin rentals and sales at their convenience store and take-out restaurant.
“I’m sitting here not making anything right now because I’m shut down, and that goes for all the resorts,” she said.
The province has signalled it will do assessments once it emerges from flood response mode.
As they focus on protecting the resort’s main lodge, the Verebs are sending their two sons to stay with grandparents. Their year-round home and nine guest cabins on higher ground are expected to be OK.
“I’m still here with family. They’re letting us protect our property for the time being,” Amy Vereb said of park officials.
Her heart breaks for people whose cabins or lodge buildings are full of water: “The long-term effects are going to be huge.”
Premier Heather Stefanson, cabinet ministers and NDP Leader Wab Kinew viewed the devastation Tuesday, during a helicopter tour organized by the province.
Baker-Thiessen wishes they would have visited lodge and cottage owners.
“They could have driven through the park to see us and hear our voices and see the pain we’re going through,” she said. “You don’t really see it until you’re here.”
In an emailed statement, Minister of Environment, Climate and Parks Jeff Wharton said an aerial tour was the safest way to assess the damage in as many communities as possible.
He visited flood-hit areas May 10, and met with cottage owners associations May 20.
In a news release, the province said rising water levels and “rapidly evolving conditions” pose a significant risk to public safety amid a local state of emergency.
Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Doyle Piwniuk, who also went on the tour, told the legislative assembly travel isn’t advised in the Whiteshell because roads are unsafe.
He said the province will continue to provide support to property owners, as Piwniuk hailed staff and volunteers fighting the “historical flood” in eastern Manitoba.
With a significant volume of water still to flow through the Winnipeg River system from northwestern Ontario, levels could rise by another half-metre before peaking in early June.
In an online bulletin, the Lake of the Woods Control Board said record flows are occurring in the Winnipeg River drainage basin in Manitoba, Ontario and Minnesota.
The board said officials can do nothing else to limit the rate of lake rise.
Dams are fully open in Kenora, Ont., where Lake of the Woods drains into the Winnipeg River. Water has been released from Lac Seul, a reservoir which also flows into the river.
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.