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Federal government ready to help flood-washed Manitoba 'any way that is needed'

MORRIS, Man. - Prime Minister Stephen Harper got a bird's-eye view Tuesday of the swamped roads and farmlands in southern Manitoba, and promised federal aid.

MORRIS, Man. - Prime Minister Stephen Harper got a bird's-eye view Tuesday of the swamped roads and farmlands in southern Manitoba, and promised federal aid.

"The federal government stands ready to assist in any way that is needed ... as the situation unfolds," Harper told reporters in Winnipeg after touring the Red River Valley by helicopter, seeing water that stretched to the horizon.

"Anything that's needed, the people of Canada will be there to help the people of Manitoba."

Harper also walked along the massive earth dike that is protecting the town of Morris about 60 kilometres south of Winnipeg. He stood next to Highway 75 - the main link from the United States border to the Manitoba capital which is now closed in places because it is under almost two metres of water.

The federal government is expected to help pay for disaster relief under its standard cost-shared program with provinces. It will help cover the cost of repairing bridges, roads and homes that have been damaged by flood waters and massive ice jams.

But some municipalities want more.

Morris Mayor Dale Hoffman wants Ottawa to help fund a massive diversion canal that would handle rising water from the Red River during spring flooding. It would be similar to the floodway that protects Winnipeg, but would run all the way from the U.S. border to Lake Winnipeg, a distance of some 200 kilometres.

"From the federal government I'd like to see a long-term vision, a goal, some form of a plan that will help to mitigate the flooding, something that is going to keep the Red River Valley from flooding every second or third year," Hoffman said.

Hoffman and other local mayors met briefly with Harper but did not get into specifics about flood protection.

Harper was not asked about Hoffman's idea specifically, but did leave the door open to new flood-proofing projects.

"It's actually much cheaper for the federal government to contribute to some of these mitigation measures ... than to contribute to all the various disaster relief actions every single year," Harper said.

"Premier (Gary) Doer has added significantly in his term of office to various mitigation efforts and infrastructure, and he and (federal cabinet) minister (Vic) Toews are discussing what the next steps in that should be, and we stand obviously very open to that."

Doer said it was too early to say whether Hoffman's idea has merit.

"Everybody's got an idea . . . We will look at it," he said. "We're spending 95 per cent of our time right now still fighting floods and protecting people."

The federal government has already helped fund the expansion of Winnipeg's floodway, doubling its capacity in recent years. There are several other ideas on the table, including raising Highway 75 in order to keep travellers and goods flowing to and from the U.S. Sections of the road are frequently under water in bad flood years, causing long detours and delays.

Manitobans are used to some amount of flooding every spring, but this year is proving to be one of the worst in decades because of a triple-whammy of rough weather.

Rain saturated the ground just before it froze in November, which left little room to absorb melting snow this spring. Heavy snowfall in North Dakota sent more meltwater into the Red River. And below-average temperatures created thick river ice that is proving slow to break up.

Flood waters have reached their second highest levels on record in the Morris area and their third highest levels at the community of St. Adolphe just south of Winnipeg, the province said Tuesday.

North of Winnipeg, ice jams have been the problem.

Some 100 homes were evacuated last weekend when water, carrying massive chunks of ice, began building up behind an ice jam in the sprawling rural municipality of St. Clements. Sixty people had to be rescued, including a handful who climbed onto a rooftop to stay dry. Those evacuees returned to their homes Monday night, the province said.

The trip to Morris brought back memories for Harper, who saw the town the last time it was threatened by water in 2006.

"We got off the plane and were greeted by a little boy and a wagon. He looked like he was soaking wet," Harper said.

"I shook his hand, a little tiny guy, and I asked him what his name was. He said 'Noah'. Well, at that point, I realized it was serious," Harper chuckled.

 
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