At the time it seemed like just another Manitoba storm.But the blizzard that clobbered southern Manitoba a decade ago this weekend set off the worst natural disaster Manitobans are likely to live through.

An ominous "Colorado low" weather system swirled over Manitoba skies on April 6 and 7, 1997.


Many drivers abandoned their cars on the street when they became mired in snow during the blizzard. ((CBC))

For more than 24 hours, the storm pounded Winnipeg and the Red River Valley, leaving as much as 50 centimetres of snow in its wake.It was the longest-lasting blizzardto hitthe region in living memory.

Every highway and school in southern Manitoba was closed. Hydro lines snapped.Driver simply abandoned their stuck cars on city roadways. At the Winnipeg airport, planes were grounded for almost 24 hours, trapping hundreds of passengers.

The weight of all the heavy, wet snow was too much for some buildings.

"I got a phone call, it was about 9, 10 o'clock in the morning, it was from the fire department, and they said, 'Your building, your roof has collapsed,'" recalls Jim Lynch, who works at the Sears warehouse in Winnipeg's North End.

"The roof had collapsed. The water was off. The gas had been shut off and the electricity's been shut off. And maybe we should come down and check out the building, and so we did."

'When I got up on Sunday morning and I couldn't see across the street, that's when I knew that the worst was happening.' —Flood forecaster Alf Warkentin

Lynch plowed his way to work, only to find a gaping hole in the roof and water damage everywhere.

While most people were wondering how they were going to dig out from all the snow, Alf Warkentin, the province's flood forecaster, had bigger problems on his mind.

"Well, I was very concerned, I must say," Warkentin said, his voice cracking with emotion.

"When I got up on Sunday morning and couldn't see across the street, that's when I knew that the worst was happening."


The tower at Winnipeg International Airport is barely visible through blowing snow. Hundreds of travellers were trapped in the airport during the storm. ((CBC))

Days later, Warkentin shared his concern with Manitobans: the "flood of the century" was a certainty.

It had been a wet year before the storm, and river levels were already high. Warkentin says the blizzard couldn't have come at a worse time.

"It's huge. Definitely huge.Without that storm, we would have looked back at this as perhaps another 1996-type of flood."

The blizzard of '97 more than doubled the spring runoff levels and forced many Manitobans to trade in their shovels for sandbags.