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Sandbagging to hold back Winnipeg floods, 1966

The Cree called it Miscousipi, Red Water River, and warned early settlers of its hidden capacity for destruction. The river flooded in 1826, forcing the complete evacuation of the 10-year-old Red River colony. But most settlers refused to give up. Winnipeg, the city they built on the Red River's banks, has braved disaster again and again – in 1950, 1966, 1979, and again, dramatically, in 1997.

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In 1966, it all happens again. Heavy snow late in the season. Thick ice on the river. Water downstream with nowhere to go. Predictions come that this flood is going to be even worse than 1950. The fates seem especially cruel. The Winnipeg Floodway, a diversion ditch designed to save the city of Winnipeg from calamity, isn't due to be completed for another two years. But the flood waters crest at lower levels than predicted. CBC TV celebrates the city's successful diking campaign with a jaunty ode to sandbagging.
Several factors contribute to the frequent flooding in the Red River Valley:
• The area around Winnipeg is exceptionally flat. At the end of the last Ice Age, an enormous glacial lake covered parts of what are now Minnesota, North Dakota, northwestern Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Exceptionally fertile topsoil and a smooth landscape were left behind when Lake Agassiz receded.

• The Red River flows northward from Lake Traverse on the Minnesota-South Dakota border, passes Winnipeg, and empties into Lake Winnipeg, north of Selkirk. As the river, bloated with spring runoff, tries to flow north, it's blocked by ice downstream.
• A layer of clay sits only a few inches below the surface of the ground. Clay is relatively impervious to water, giving the floodwaters nowhere to go but outwards.

• An unusually wet autumn and a hard frost prior to snowfall leave the ground saturated through the winter. When spring arrives, water cannot soak into the ground.
• A long cold winter, with lots of snow late in the season, results in extra thick ice on the river and extra spring runoff, as happened in 1950, 1966 and 1997.
• A late spring with heavy rains causes a too gradual melt, ending in a sudden disastrous thaw.

• Because the Red River Valley area is so flat, floods approach very slowly, with days or even weeks of warning. This kind of slow flood provides plenty of time for evacuations but increases damages.
• In 1988, researcher Edward A. McBean found that damages increase by 6% if a flood lasts longer than 24 hours. In southern Manitoba, homes are often flooded for well over a week.
Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Morning Magazine
Broadcast Date: April 10, 1966
Guest(s): Duff Roblin
Host: Bruce Rogers, Bob Wilson
Reporter: Fred Cleverley
Duration: 4:45

Last updated: February 10, 2012

Page consulted on June 2, 2014

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