National News

Manitoba poised to deliberately flood land

By Chinta Puxley, The Canadian Press

HOOP AND HOLLER BEND, Man. - Convoys of soldiers descended on southern Manitoba on Saturday to fill hundreds of thousands of sandbags and help fend off a torrent of floodwater coming from the west.

The soldiers are being asked to protect 350 rural homes — 150 of which could be flooded if the province deliberately breaches a dike to take pressure off the Assiniboine River. Many of them gathered around sandbagging machines Saturday in wilting heat to build up Manitoba's flood-fighting arsenal.

Major Mike Legace, with the Canadian Armed Forces, said the troops based at CFB Shilo in nearby Brandon, Man., are trying to fill 125,000 sandbags a day as the crest bears down on southwestern Manitoba.

"We've got some very young, strong soldiers who are very fit and ready to fight for Manitobans during our next little flood," he said. "They're happy to be here. Every time we get involved in a mission to support Canadians, it's a great mission."

Bombardier Jonathan Kaiser helped fight the flood in 2011 and found himself back at a sandbagging machine three years later.

"We're just trying to get some sandbags out there and get the floods under control," Kaiser said. "It's tedious. It's hot and tedious but it's got to get done so we do the best we can."

Hundreds of troops were called up Friday when Premier Greg Selinger declared a state of emergency and asked for military assistance. The military will help fill up to one million sandbags needed to protect vulnerable properties west of Winnipeg, bolstering the two million sandbags the province has in stock.

Troops are also expected to move quickly if dikes are breached as the crest moves through the province. Selinger said close to 400 soldiers should be on the ground by the end of Saturday.

Bev Biccum is hoping some of them show up at her house soon. Biccum's home was surrounded by water when the province breached the dike by the Hoop and Holler Bend during one of the province's worst floods in 2011.

She's been told soldiers will put up a temporary dike around her home again but she says they haven't even finished cleaning up from the last flood. Biccum said she can't believe the province is preparing to use her front yard as a floodway again.

"If this is the second time they're doing this to us, then buy us out," she said as she took a break moving things to higher ground.

Efforts are underway to breach the dike half-a-kilometre from Biccum's home, if the province determines that it's necessary, that would deliberately flood several hundred square kilometres of land.

"Can't Saskatchewan do the same thing so that we don't get the water as much?" Biccum asked.

Officials said the flood situation in the province is changing rapidly and more water is pouring into Manitoba than officials first predicted. The province had said a controlled cut could come on Monday to ease some of the pressure on dikes holding back the swollen Assiniboine River, but Selinger said Saturday the breach would only be made as a last resort.

"It's a tremendously stressful experience for anybody who's in the Hoop and Holler area that's in the innundation zone," Selinger said during a media briefing on Saturday. "Every minute that we've got before any final decision is made will be used to protect people as much as possible."

Manitoba could experience a series of crests from the floodwater so Selinger said a controlled breach at Hoop and Holler Bend could remain a possibility for some time. Selinger ordered the same measure in 2011, deliberately flooding the same swath of land and threatening homes in the area to save hundreds more downstream.

This summer flood caused by torrential rain last weekend is expected to topple records set in 2011.

Joerg Zimmermann and his family were busy filling their own sandbags Saturday on the driveway of his home beside the Assiniboine River in St. Francois Xavier, just west of Winnipeg. His home was built last year and well above the watermark left on trees in his yard from the 2011 flood.

But he's sandbagging around the home just in case.

"The property is beautiful with the river but you live around the river, you've got to be prepared for (flooding)," Zimmermann said.

People living along the river have been told the water level could swell half a metre above where it was three years ago. The 2011 flood was one of Manitoba's worst, as army reservists scrambled to help shore up weakened dikes and sandbag homes along the river.

The province is forecasting similar flows this year when the first crest arrives from Saskatchewan. The crest was expected to arrive in Brandon pm Saturday, and a few days later around Portage La Prairie.

Provincial flood forecaster Steve Topping said another crest of floodwater on the Assiniboine River could hit the province later this month. Water streaming in from the Qu'Appelle River system in Saskatchewan is higher than the earlier crest now threatening the province.

The city of Brandon is predicting a series of crests with the first one arriving Saturday. Although people living along the Assiniboine River are on evacuation alert, they aren't expected to have to leave unless the city's dikes are breached.

Officials said they identified a weak spot in the dike but were shoring it up with clay.

"No one has been evacuated from Brandon," the city said in its Saturday morning flood briefing. "We have plans and people in place that can be activated at a moment's notice."

Torrential rain and flash floods last weekend prompted more than 100 communities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba to declare a state of emergency. About 300 people in Saskatchewan and 698 people in Manitoba have now had to leave their homes because of overland flooding.

Some 50 municipalities in Manitoba have declared a state of emergency.

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