Emergency responders 'hope and pray' Peguis First Nation dodges worst of coming rain

Peguis First Nation, trying to rally from historic flooding that has forced out half of the community's residents, is now fortifying against another forecast storm.

Wind gusts could create waves in flooded areas, destroying sandbag dikes, says CBC meteorologist John Sauder

An aerial view of Peguis First Nation on Monday. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Peguis First Nation, trying to rally from historic flooding that has forced out half of the community's residents, is now fortifying against another forecast storm.

"It could be devastating again," said Dean Cochrane, fire chief in the Manitoba Interlake community, about 160 kilometres north of Winnipeg. "I hope and pray we don't get any more rain."

If it does come, Cochrane is hoping he and other emergency responders in the community can get a few more homes protected by dikes.

Mother Nature was kind enough earlier this week to spare the area, with only a bit of drizzle on Monday. There were fears much more would come down.

Winnipeg, in comparison, received 20 millimetres that day.

The break gave the emergency crews time to add more sandbags and reinforce Tiger Dams around several homes, Cochrane said.

The swollen Fisher River broke its banks and spilled across the low-lying community, washing out roads and breaching dikes at the start of the month, prompting mandatory evacuations.

"It came in so fast from the south, it was just like a wave," Cochrane said.

A volunteer is seen sandbagging around a home in Peguis First Nation earlier this month. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Nearly 1,900 people have been forced out and are now living in hotels in Winnipeg, Gimli, Selkirk, Brandon and Portage la Prairie. Peguis usually has just over 3,500 members usually living on reserve.

Last Friday, Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson said that more than 700 homes had been impacted by the flooding in some way at that point. About 200 of those were surrounded by water and considered uninhabitable, he said.

On Thursday, he said some community members holed up in hotels were feeling frustrated as their displacement continues. Some of that is a result of evacuees being forced to relocate again, to other hotels, due to previous reservations and bookings kicking in, Hudson said.

"That's something that's very frustrating for people, especially our elders and people that have medical conditions and people that want to stay within their family units," he said. "It's very difficult."

Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson says some evacuees are getting bumped from their hotel rooms and relocated due to previously-made bookings from other guests. (CBC)

He's heard some planned to head back to their homes in Peguis despite the conditions.

"We're hoping we don't get the precipitation that is expected," said Hudson. "Now that the second wave is coming so to speak, people are gearing up."

Indigenous Services Canada said in preparation officials are working with Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization and First Nation leadership with Peguis, Fisher River and Kinonjeoshtegon. ISC has already committed $1 million to fund emergency flood response activities including sandbagging, dike construction and pumping water, the agency said.

Fisaha Unduche, the director of Manitoba's hydrologic forecast centre, has previously described the flooding on the Fisher River as a one-in-100-year event.

The river level has gone down somewhat and water in the community has receded to a point now where it is no longer against any homes, said Cochrane.

The main road has been closed every evening so crews can pump water from one side — where it is trapped after flowing over the road when the levels were highest — to the other side, where it can run back off into the river.

A playground is surrounded by floodwaters on Peguis First Nation on Friday, May 6. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Manitoba's hydrological forecast estimates 20 to 50 mm of rain for most of the south and centre of the province over three days, beginning Thursday night.

Strong winds could drive up levels by a foot in some areas of the flood-stricken Red River Valley, possibly spilling over onto roads.

The highest impact on river and creek levels is anticipated in the southeast and west. A flood warning is also in effect for the Winnipeg River from the Ontario border west to Lake Winnipeg. Lakes and communities along the Winnipeg River are forecast to see record flows — higher than in the previous record year of 2014, the province says.

Up to 60 mm could fall in Duck Mountains and the upper Assiniboine and Qu'Appelle river basins in Saskatchewan and southeastern Manitoba, according to the forecast. Some areas could see more, though the Interlake is projected to get lower amounts.

CBC Manitoba meteorologist John Sauder says the rain will likely begin sometime after 10 p.m. Thursday around Winnipeg and into the Interlake.

It's a system with embedded thunderstorms, which makes it difficult to nail down exact amounts that could fall, but in general it is expected to bring about 30 millimetres, he said.

However, a community in the path of one of those thunderstorms could see 50 millimetres or more.

"A best-case scenario would be 20 to 25 millimetres, but that's still a lot of rain," Sauder said, adding he is almost more concerned about the winds over the next couple of days.

Gusts of 50-70 km/h will pick up Friday afternoon with the possibility of surges reaching 80 to 85 km/h, he said. The wind should ease off Saturday morning but is expected to roar back in the afternoon, with gusts up to 50 km/h.

A house, protected by a dike, sits below the water line on the Peguis First Nation on Friday, May 6. Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson said that more than 700 homes had been impacted by the flooding in some way at that point. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"The wind can really funnel up the Red River Valley" and into the Interlake, Sauder said, adding that could make for dangerous wave action in flooded areas.

Whatever happens, Cochrane said his team is on standby.

"We have people ready to go out in any kinds of weather to beef up [the dikes]," he said.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Sheila North and Bryce Hoye