WHITESHELL PROVINCIAL PARK — Amy Vereb’s family has been in the Otter Falls area for 22 years but she’s never seen flooding the likes of which surrounded her family’s resort Saturday.
"I’m overwhelmed," Vereb said with tears in her eyes.
Throngs of area residents, cottagers and other volunteers gathered together outside the Vereb’s Otter Falls Resort Saturday to haul sandbags into dozens of awaiting pickup trucks. Drivers then took the bags back to homes and cottages in the area where they’re trying to stave off rising floodwaters.
In a weekend news release, the province said the Winnipeg River water levels are expected to crest in early June, but levels aren’t likely to drop below seasonal for several more weeks.
That’s cold comfort for area residents. They are in immediate fear of seeing their homes destroyed or being cut off from other communities. Floodwater was already creeping onto area roadways Saturday.
"This is terrible," said Vereb’s husband and resort co-owner, Daniel, who was piling sandbags around the property with a crew of friends and family. But even if the road gets shut down, Daniel said he’s not leaving. "We’ll hunker down if we have to but we’re not going to leave our property."
A total of 41 areas in Manitoba are now under local states of emergency, including Whiteshell Provincial Park.
Manitoba Parks has ordered the evacuation of Whiteshell Provincial Park’s Betula Lake region, including any cottage areas, subdivisions, commercial areas, recreational and picnic areas, playgrounds, trails and beaches. Highway 307 is now closed at Nutimik Lake.
Across the street from Vereb’s resort, Manitoba Parks staff were working frantically to fill and supply sandbags to those who need them.
They couldn’t keep up with demand.
"This is chaos," said a frustrated Heather Howie, waiting in her truck for the chance to grab more sandbags. It was her family’s fourth time at the station that day. Each time they waited about 30 minutes. "The system isn’t working for the volume (of bags) that is needed."
She doesn’t blame the parks staff, who she knows are working hard, but she said the province needs to bring in an emergency measures team to better co-ordinate operations.
Howie said her Dorothy Lake home is surrounded by water. They "desperately" need volunteers to come help them protect the property, but there’s no point if people just end up waiting on the lawn for more sandbags.
All along the lake, chest-wader-clad people could be seen piling sandbags around properties. A few beers in hand was the only hint they were meant to be celebrating the May long weekend.
Jennifer Denesyk was helping out friends in the area.
She thinks even more volunteers are needed, having watched elderly people drive up trying to manage the sangbagging on their own.
It’s not clear if more help is coming. A provincial spokesperson would only say the situation was "evolving" and there wasn’t much more they could say on Saturday.
The province says a flood warning remains in effect for the Winnipeg River and the Whiteshell lakes area. Property owners are advised to "continue to remain vigilant and take any necessary precautions."
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"Residents in affected areas should take immediate action to protect individuals and property, and be prepared to evacuate if needed," read a Saturday release from the province. "Local authorities will have the most up-to-date information on accommodation options and evacuation routes. Households should prepare a 72-hour emergency kit. Manitobans should not attempt to cross fast-flowing waters or waters of unknown depth. Avoid affected water bodies, valleys, low-lying areas and flooded areas and follow all directions by local authorities."
In the Dorothy Lake area, residents spoke of spotting unmoored docks floating in the middle of the lake and a boathouse with its roof removed so residents could save a boat from rising water.
"Mother Nature is not happy," laughed Daniel Vereb, noting last year his family was nearly forced to evacuate the area due to forest fires.
The Verebs were at least glad to see their business finding some success — the kitchen was still in operation, much to the appreciation of exhausted sandbag-fillers and -seekers eagerly devouring burgers and fries at picnic tables.
A rare break on a stressful day.
Katrina Clarke Reporter
Katrina Clarke is an investigative reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press.
Manitoba Hydro is advising people take “extreme caution” on and around rivers and lakes, especially near generating stations. A 14-day forecast on water levels and flows on waterways linked to the provincial hydro-electric system is available at https://hydro.mb.ca/corporate/facilities/water_levels/.