WINNIPEG – Armed with truckloads of sandbags, neighbour helped neighbour battle the swollen Red River north of Winnipeg as government officials issued evacuation alerts to 850 people and warned all Manitobans to prepare for three more weeks of “prolonged agony.”
The cold weather that has swept across the province is “temporarily” staving off the flood threat, but ice-clogged culverts, ice jams and the rising Red River will continue to threaten hundreds of homes. Senior flood forecaster Alf Warkentin said Thursday the situation will remain tense for at least another three weeks.
“The cold weather could be an ally in this case, drying up the source of water at least temporarily,” Warkentin said.
“But there could be a resurgence of this when the snow finally does melt. So it’s not over yet. We’re going to get another round of overland flooding when this snow melts. What this is doing is prolonging the agony. There will be a longer period of difficulties with water on fields and problems with access.”
Ice jams were playing havoc in communities in the sprawling rural area just north of Winnipeg. One ice jam prompted 40 homes to be evacuated in the bedroom communities and flooded several dozen homes.
It had broken up somewhat by Thursday morning, but started to re-form some two kilometres downstream, leaving residents worried.
Adding to their concerns, another flood threat is looming for mid-April, when the massive floodwaters that have battered North Dakota are expected to arrive in Manitoba.
Officials will be keeping a close eye on water levels, as well as possible ice jams north of Selkirk, Man., and around Winnipeg’s bridges.
“It’s not a good situation,” Warkentin said. “It is a bit worrisome.”
While many towns in southern Manitoba are protected by ring dikes, about 850 people have been told to be ready to evacuate in short notice in Roseau River First Nation and Riverside, Man., just north of the U.S. border.
Don Brennan, acting executive director of Manitoba’s Emergency Measures Organization, said evacuation preparations are underway and officials will start moving people out as needed, starting with the elderly and children.
“All the plans are in the offing,” Brennan said. “It all depends on the elevation of the water, how fast it’s going to approach.”
Terrance Nelson, a leader from the Roseau River First Nation, said the community is under a state of emergency and people have already started to clear their basements. He has no confidence that the ring dike around the reserve will hold since it has collapsed twice since the “flood of the century” in 1997.
“We’re going to try and get some people out of here in as orderly a fashion as we can and not scramble at the end when things are all chaos,” said Nelson, who was the band chief until a recent disputed election left the community in limbo.
Late Thursday, 95 elders and those with chronic conditions were being taken by charter buses to Winnipeg from Roseau River as a precaution, said Curtis Smith of the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters.
“The road is eventually going to get washed over so we want to get the elderly out for that reason,” he said.
Residents in the flooded areas north of Winnipeg were “expecting the worst and hoping for the best” Thursday as they cleaned up after the ice jam moved on.
Lyle Thompson and his friends formed a chain, passing sandbags down the line and placing them on the ground in the narrowing band of ground between the water and his comfortable suburban home.
“Last night, I made a small dike and I thought I’d be fine. This morning, (the water) went up so far it covered my dock and my wife panicked and I kind of thought we should get sandbagging,” he said.
“The water probably went up seven feet.”
Across the river, Randy Bauschke’s brand new home was drying out after having nearly two metres of water in the basement overnight.
“I’m not counting on the worst being over,” he said.
Premier Gary Doer toured some of the affected areas Thursday morning, stressing that the province is doing its best to break up the ice.
“We know that ice is unpredictable,” he said.
Even though the water subsided after the ice jam was dislodged, St. Clements Mayor Steve Strang said his community was still dealing with 100 frozen culverts which have left melting snow with nowhere to go.
Everyone was exhausted, he added, and the worst was likely still to come.
“We’re in for probably the worst two weeks that this community has ever seen in its entire existence,” said Strang, who has lived north of Winnipeg for over 20 years.
South of the border, thousands of North Dakotans stacked sandbags around the clock to protect the state’s largest city from the rising Red River. Volunteers and Fargo officials were heeding the mayor’s call to add another 30 centimetres of dike protection against the rising water.
The river was at 11.6 metres early Thursday, with the U.S. National Weather Service predicting it would crest at 12.5 metres on the weekend.
Mayor Dennis Walaker described a crest that high as “uncharted territory.” The Red’s record high at Fargo was 12.2 metres in 1897. Walaker said he was still confident the city would beat the flood, but he warned that contingency plans were needed.
Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said authorities had 11 requests for evacuations. The U.S. Coast Guard and local rescue and emergency officials were using airboats to evacuate flood-stranded residents.
“As the river’s moving north, our issues are moving north,” Laney said.
Officials in Manitoba have said they expect the crest to hit the border around April 5. They’ve predicted the Red River Valley is likely to experience a flood similar to both 1979 and 1950, but likely not as severe as 1997.