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Next 48 hours crucial for Manitobans facing imminent flood threat: minister

ST. JEAN BAPTISTE, Man. - The rising Red River swamped farmland and washed out roads in southern Manitoba on Wednesday, but residents said they were prepared for the days ahead.

ST. JEAN BAPTISTE, Man. - The rising Red River swamped farmland and washed out roads in southern Manitoba on Wednesday, but residents said they were prepared for the days ahead.

"Well, we're kind of used to flooding around this area," chuckled Eric Sabourin, who was able to maintain his humour despite the fact that two-thirds of his sprawling cropland had been turned into a massive lake.

"If they would call for a lot of rain, people would be worried, but now everybody's just kind of waiting and seeing what's going to happen."

Like many of his neighbours, Sabourin has a driveway under water. His land is so deluged he can't walk more than several metres from his home in any direction without being submerged to his waist.

He is still able to drive his pickup truck through the water to the road. His uncle, Ted, who lives nearby, is not so lucky. His driveway is also flooded, but even the biggest vehicles can't get through. He had plenty of food and was in good spirits while he waited for the water to subside, Sabourin said.

The Sabourins, like others in the Red River Valley, have built up protection around their homes since the so-called flood of the century in 1997. And while this year's water levels are high, they are well short of those reached 12 years ago.

Since then, vulnerable communities have expanded their ring dikes and Winnipeg has widened its floodway - the massive ditch that diverts water around the city and which was partially activated Wednesday. Officials made the call after the water rose to just over six metres in some parts of the Manitoba capital.

Opening the floodway raises the river level in areas around Winnipeg, but officials were trying to balance the risks to the city with concern for other communities, said Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton.

One of the key issues keeping everyone on edge was that the Red River remained covered in a stubborn frozen layer.

Ashton said the next 48 hours would be crucial for those facing an imminent threat of flooding. Ice jams could still cause localized problems, including inside the city, he warned.

Premier Gary Doer, who surveyed the valley by air Wednesday, said he's never seen so much ice.

"I won't feel comfortable until the ice has moved completely out of Winnipeg, completely out of the floodway and completely through Selkirk without flooding people," Doer said.

But the $800 million spent on flood-proofing means the province is ready, he said.

Steve Topping with Manitoba Water Stewardship said he's never seen ice blocks hang on when there is so much water flowing through the river. Ice-breakers have pulled out bricks of ice almost 77 centimetres thick, he said.

"We're in unprecedented territory in having such high flows in the city of Winnipeg and still having an ice cover. It's strong ice."

The crest of the river was expected to hit the border town of Emerson in the next day or two before moving onto Winnipeg next week.

Even so, people in low-lying communities such as the Roseau River First Nation, which sits near the juncture of the Red and Roseau Rivers, appeared confident.

"We feel relatively safe with the efforts that we've put forward, so we'll see when the crest hits," Gary Roberts, a band councillor, said as he stood near Roseau River's heightened ring dike.

Most of the community was evacuated two weeks ago as a precaution, but many people returned when it became apparent the flood threat would be less than first expected. About half the community of 800 now remain in Winnipeg.

The crest of the Red River that washed through Fargo, N.D., last month was expected Thursday. The river was well over its banks near Emerson, but there was still plenty of dry earth on the town's dike.

Forecasters have said the province could escape one of the worst floods in its history this year with only minimal property damage - as long as there are no serious ice jams on the river or heavy precipitation in the next few weeks.

-With files from Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg

 
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