10 years after flood

Ten years. A decade. It doesn’t seem so long ago, but that’s how long it’s been since Red River Valley residents on both sides of the border fought the tragic Flood of the Century. For many who endured the flood in 1997 and lost homes and businesses, the images are indelibly burned into their minds — trapped as a mental reminder that Mother Nature can surpass the best efforts of mere mortals.

The first flood images were from Grand Forks. On the evening of April 19, floodwater inundated the city’s downtown core. TV news reports showed flames licking at businesses leaving buildings as empty shells. The potential horror of what Manitoba would encounter had been revealed. Pictures showed that 50 per cent of Grand Forks in North Dakota and virtually all of East Grand Forks on the Minnesota side of the Red had been flooded.

Manitoba had slightly more time to prepare than the U.S. cities, towns and farms along the Red. The province had learned a valuable lesson from the devastating flood of 1950 and implemented  various flood protection measures, including the famous Red River Floodway, affectionately known as Duff’s Ditch, named after former Premier Duff Roblin, as well as the Portage Diversion and the Shellmouth Dam to the west of Winnipeg. In addition, many southern Manitoba towns, though not all, were provided with some protection by ring dikes.

But whatever comfort Red River residents drew from these measure soon evaporated as the floodwaters rolled across the border into Manitoba. The resulting Flood of the Century nearly rivaled in scale the massive floods in 1826 and 1852 that almost brought an end to the Red River Settlement founded by Lord Selkirk.

The floodwaters found holes in the flood protection and relentlessly crept forward to cover formerly dry land. The one community which faced the whims of Mother Nature run amok was Ste. Agathe. Townsfolk struggled to protect homes and property. What they did not expect was that Mother Nature would throw them a curve ball. High winds whipped the floodwaters into a frenzy and the water poured overland toward Highway 75. When the flood struck, it would not be from the east, but from the west. Highway 75 proved to be an ineffectual barrier to the water’s attack. Just after midnight, waves amid the homes of Ste. Agathe were shown on TV with crests comparable to those seen during a rampaging nor’easter on Lake Winnipeg. Indeed, the great expanse of floodwater in the valley earned it the nickname the Red Sea.

Some 7,000 Canadian troops arrived to help combat the flood. Farms and homes were ordered abandoned by the Manitoba government and the Emergency Measures Organization and enforced by the military and police — homes some thought could have been saved if only residents were allowed to stay behind to sandbag and man pumps. Some were evacuated but slipped away to return to their homes and keep up the battle against the rising water. Many  forced to leave broke into tears of frustration when they returned and saw their homes had become victims of the merciless flood. In the  end, the flood claimed about 800 homes in the valley.

Some have even said in hindsight that the flooding of Ste. Agathe shouldn’t have occurred. It has surfaced that the military were at fault because they had set up blockades around the town that prevented the reinforcement of Highway 75. The scant gravel that had been laid down was easily overcome by floodwaters and the town was lost.

The evacuation order was fought by the RM of St. Morris. Local officials had their own strategy which they were prepared to enact. Free Press  writer Bill Redekop, who won the 1997 National Newspaper Award for his coverage of the flood, wrote last week that residents who stayed behind raised dikes, plugged leaks and made sure pumps were running. They formed clusters of three to eight people to protect homes and look after homes that were abandoned.

Eventually the tension was eased when the evacuation order became  less-stringently enforced — people could stay behind and fight for their homes.

When the floodway gates were raised in Winnipeg, it saved the city, but homes upstream of the diversion were less fortunate. A review after the flood revealed that opening the gates had contributed to flooding at Grande Pointe where 125 homes suffered water damage.   

By the end of the flood, 12 homes within the valley were so badly damaged that they had to be rebuilt, especially in the hard-hit RM of Richot.

Major improvements have been made to flood protection in Manitoba's portion of the Red River Valley. The most extensive is the ongoing $665-million improvement to the floodway which will provide protection from a one-in-900-year flood, well above the magnitude of the 1826 flood. In and around Winnipeg during the 1826 flood, the only water-free area was high ground near Silver Heights, Birds Hill, Sturgeon Creek and Stony Mountain. The 1826 flood was 40 per cent greater than 1997 and floodwaters went two metres higher than 1950. If a flood occurred in 1997 of the 1826 magnitude, it is estimated total damages would have reached $5 billion.

Other communities have had their ring dike systems dramatically improved. Another 13 communities have new ring dikes. In total, 2,133 homes and businesses are now protected by new or improved community ring dikes, the construction of which was cost-shared 90 per cent between the federal and provincial governments with RMs contributing the remaining 10 per cent.  

Besides flood protection, an extensive compensation program allowed homeowners, businesses and farmers to rebuild. In some instances, homes were bought out simply because it was too difficult to flood-proof them.

Being prepared for the unexpected was the major lesson learned from the Flood of the Century. The disastrous 1950 flood led to construction of the floodway between 1962 and 1967, but 1997 showed us in great detail that it simply wasn’t enough. The old floodway saved Winnipeg, but the city came within a whisker of being inundated.