Manitoba gaining upper hand in flood fight

Most businesses in Brandon's flood evacuation zone will soon be able to reopen as levels on the Assiniboine River continue to drop.

Evacuees preparing to return home in Brandon

A car turns around as the waters from the Assiniboine River breach flood across a road on May 17 near Newton. The dike was intentionally breached to relieve pressure from the rising river. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)


  • Current figures of the effects of flooding

Most businesses in Brandon's flood evacuation zone will soon be able to reopen as levels on the Assiniboine River continue to drop.

Officials in Manitoba's second-largest city are also preparing to get some of the 1,200 evacuees back into their homes.

"We have been telling people that we were going to get them back just as soon as we can. There was a sense that the river was going down fast enough that it was now safe to bring the businesses on the north side of the river back," said Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, adding it will take a bit longer to get businesses on the south side of the river back in.

Motorists pass a wall of sandbags holding back the flood waters from the Assiniboine River on May 17 in Brandon. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The city has developed a three-phase program to return to some semblance of normalcy.

The first phase will allow businesses in the Corral Centre and the Paddock shopping and business centres to return on Saturday. Those businesses will then be able to open to the public by May 24.

Current flood figures

  •  3,360 — Manitobans evacuated from their homes, including 1,391 in Brandon.
  • 1,236 — Evacuees who have been able to return to their homes in the Red River Valley.
  • 1,600 — Canadian Forces personnel helping with flood fight.
  • 400 — The current flow in feet per second of the controlled release on the Assiniboine dike at the Hoop and Holler bend.
  • 3.42 — The area in square kilometres affected by the controlled release at the Hoop and Holler dike. 
  • 237 — The number of private applications received by the provincial disaster financial assistance program. There have been 84 municipal claims filed.

Phase two focuses on business located along 18th Street while phase three centres on letting the first 500 people from the flood zone return to their houses.

The city hasn't set exact dates for phases two or three.

Despite the improving conditions, the city's emergency co-ordinator, Brian Kayes, warned that the water levels are still above the 100-year flood level and the current is still moving very fast.

The city isn't about to put anyone into a risky situation, said Decter Hirst.

"You're most vulnerable when you're sleeping and if we needed to evacuate in the middle of the night that would be a challenge," she said.

Reinforcing weak spots

Floodwaters have peaked and are now receding in a deliberately flooded area of Manitoba.

Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton told the legislature on Thursday that he is cautiously optimistic the worst is over.

A weak spot in the Portage Diversion west of Winnipeg has been reinforced and the diversion channel continues to redirect water from the swollen Assiniboine River to Lake Manitoba.

The water has also now peaked in the Portage la Prairie region where the province deliberately cut a dike at the Hoop and Holler Bend on May 14, flooding rural land to protect other homes downstream.

The water is receding but it will be months before life returns to normal there, Ashton said, adding Lake Manitoba will likely remain high well into the summer.

Crews worked furiously Wednesday to shore up a weak spot in the Portage Diversion, after a portion that had been built up to handle more volume of water began seeping and needed major repair.

The diversion channels water from the swollen Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba.

Sunny skies and round-the-clock work by the Canadian Forces helped Manitoba gain the upper hand in the fight, Premier Greg Selinger said.

The clear, warm weather dried out muddy dikes and made it easier for crews to reinforce vulnerable spots with sandbags.

As a result, the province's flood protection around the raging river has improved dramatically in the last few days.

"Just four or five days ago, there were about 16 hot spots where the dike was at risk of breaching. Now, they've narrowed it down to less than a handful and are strengthening them as we speak," Selinger said.

Hoop and Holler's slow flow

The breached dike at Hoop and Holler Bend hasn't been nearly as devastating as once feared. While the province initially warned it might have to release up to 3,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs), the flow has remained around 400 cfs.

No homes in the area have been seriously damaged by the release of water and the cut could be sealed off in the next few days, Selinger said.

While some have criticized the decision to deliberately flood the area — sending residents into a frantic panic to protect their homes — the premier said it was necessary.

"The controlled release did take a lot of pressure off the dikes at a critical time," he said. "It allowed them to make a lot of progress in the last four or five days.

"As soon as the controlled breach can be closed, and the dikes are safe and the diversion is safe, then we'll get a recommendation from our officials to close it."

'Not out of it yet'

Selinger said the province is working on a compensation package for affected homeowners in the Hoop and Holler region that will go beyond normal disaster relief. The province hopes to roll out those details in the coming days.

Manitoba will be looking to the federal government to help reimburse residents, Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton added.

He said the precedent was set in 1997, after the province's "flood of the century," when Ottawa helped Manitoba with flood recovery.

While being more optimistic about the flood situation, Ashton has warned that residents should not yet be complacent. There is still a real risk the province's dike around the Assiniboine could fail.

"We are not in any position to stand down in terms of our 24/7 flood fighting efforts," Ashton said. "This is an unprecedented flood event in the Assiniboine valley ... We are not out of it yet."

With files from The Canadian Press