Whiteshell property owners prepare to stay and fight flood despite evacuation order

Resort owner Amy Vereb says she will be one of many people in the Whiteshell staying behind to protect their properties from rising floodwaters after an expanded evacuation order goes into effect Tuesday.

Expanded evacuation zone goes into effect at 5 p.m. Tuesday

Volunteers are making a last-ditch effort to sandbag around Otter Falls on Tuesday. (Emily Brass/CBC)

Resort owner Amy Vereb says she will be one of many people in the Whiteshell staying behind to protect their properties from rising floodwaters after an expanded evacuation order goes into effect Tuesday. 

"There's lots of us out here that this is all we have, and I just don't think that people realize that," said Vereb, who owns Otter Falls Resort.

"This isn't just cottage country."

The evacuation order for the northern part of Whiteshell Provincial Park in eastern Manitoba is expanding at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Vereb has watched Margaret Lake rise from the beach to within a few feet of the door of her resort's main lodge over the last week.

Cottages, houses and other buildings are ringed by sandbags throughout Whiteshell Provincial Park. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

"It's devastation here," she said.

"Lots of people are going to lose everything. I'm lucky right now. My home's on high ground. My lodge is not. We're trying to save that, but a lot of people have lost everything."

Vereb and her husband are sending their two young children to stay with their grandparents, while they stay behind to work with friends, family and neighbours to lay sandbags.

Many people in the community feel they haven't gotten the support they need from the government, Vereb said.

"That's what I'm hearing from local people is just the frustration that they're not getting enough help. We're doing the best we can here with our family and friends and the support from the guys across the road."

Art Abrahams lives year-round at a cottage in Otter Falls and says he doesn't understand why the province didn't warn people in the area to be prepared.

A crowd of sandbaggers fill bags at a depot near Otter Falls. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"They should have told us, listen in two weeks there's a lot of water coming, you better get prepared now, instead of when the water's here already. And now we have to try to sandbag it with plastic and everything," he said.

"They told us yesterday we have to evacuate by 5 p.m."

Nearby, Laura Ivory spent much of the day on Tuesday moving sandbags by canoe, not sure if her efforts will be enough to protect her seasonal cottage of 35 years.

"Maybe tomorrow I'll be crying, but not today. We're all too busy, I think. I don't think anybody's really had time to be emotional yet," Ivory said.

"This is our last kick at the cat. If it's not done today, then it goes under."

Premier, opposition leader tour flooding

Premier Heather Stefanson, along with members of her cabinet and Opposition Leader Wab Kinew, took an aerial tour of the flooding in the Whiteshell on Tuesday. 

"There's just so much water out there it's overwhelming," Stefanson told reporters after the tour, adding that forecasts expect the Winnipeg River to keep rising.

While Manitobans have dealt with flooding before, this year is especially difficult because of how widespread the deluge has been, she said.

"What is different is that it's coming from all angles, or all directions, and so it's affecting many more Manitobans at the same time than maybe it has in the past."

High water levels washed out Highway 307, leading to several hundred residents being evacuated from parts of Whiteshell Provincial Park. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Responding to criticism that she and her government have not been proactive enough in the fight against the flooding, Stefanson said her team has been doing incredible work around the clock, working across departments and levels of government. 

"Things have been changing rapidly throughout the course of the flooding coming from different areas," she said.

"We're all coming together across party lines as well, we recognize the challenges that Manitobans are facing across this province and we'll continue to ensure that we get as much information out to them in a timely manner."

Kinew said he was struck by the number of homes, cottages and businesses affected by the flooding and evacuation orders, and thanked the provincial staff who are working on the flood fight.

"Certainly our hearts go out to everybody that's affected. There's just so much water out there right now."

Evacuation expands

The evacuation area extends from the Highway 307 west entrance east to the junction of highways 307 and 309. 

Sylvia Lake, Eleanor Lake, Otter Falls, Barrier Bay and Nutimik Lake will be closed as well as the current Betula Lake closure area announced on Friday, the province said in a news release on Sunday.

In a statement on Tuesday, a provincial spokesperson said approximately 475 cottages and 44 commercial operations were identified in the impacted area, in addition to the Betula Lake evacuation. All were notified, along with individuals with campsite reservations in the affected areas.

The province has also set up a call centre for property owners. 

"Manitoba Wildfire Service has deployed 84 personnel, three Incident Management Team members, and two medics to support sandbagging operations in Whiteshell Provincial Park," the statement said.

Thousands of sandbags have been provided for use in the Whiteshell, and 1,000 feet of Tiger Dam tubes were filled at Nutimik Lake. The province is working on getting a sandbagging machine for the region as well, the statement said. 

The province urges people not to enter or return to their properties in the area. Anyone already there should plan to leave as soon as possible.

Houses and cottages are surrounded by water in Whiteshell Provincial Park. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Nightly and seasonal camping at the Dorothy Lake, Opapiskaw and Nutimik Lake campgrounds and the nightly campground at Big Whiteshell Lake south shore closed on Monday at 3 p.m. The closures will remain in effect until June 6, the province said.

All backcountry campsites in Whiteshell Provincial Park are closed.

Many highways are flooded and could flood even more, making travel conditions treacherous.

Heavy spring precipitation across southern and central Manitoba have pushed water levels to their highest points in years, and the Whiteshell has been hit particularly hard. The precipitation in the Whiteshell lakes area exceeded weather records dating back to 1951.

Whiteshell property owners stay despite evacuation order

4 months ago
Duration 2:11
Volunteers are making a last-ditch effort to sandbag around Otter Falls, despite the evacuation order for the northern part of Whiteshell Provincial Park.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson, Cameron MacLean and Emily Brass


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