Prairie ‘islanders’ struggling to keep spirits afloat

Inundated southwestern Manitobans rally in the face of unprecedented flood damage

It was when all the eggs, milk and bread were gone, and the canned goods started running out that staff at Pierson Co-op conceded things were getting “kind of scary.”

“Everyone is just holding their breath. I’m not sure how long we can keep on like this,” said Louise Goforth July 3. She was tending the store while its manager and local volunteers figured out how to get grocery supplies in washed-out roads.

The local RM of Edward also restricted gas sales last week to ensure supplies for emergency vehicles.

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floodwaters along a riverbank

But no one was going anywhere anyways.

The small southwestern village and surrounding farms had become virtual islands by mid-week following a late-June deluge over a region that had already received twice the normal rainfall since April. The familiar landscape became a surreal terrain of swamp and submerged farmland, washed-out roads and impassable bridges.

Grocery shelves were restocked in Pierson by the next day, and mostly sunshine through the week had helped reduce panic to brooding anxiety, but their evolving predicament remained among the worst in a province declaring a provincial state of emergency July 4.

Provincial officials warned of more overland flooding to come and a surge from the Assiniboine in the coming days that could be even worse than 2011.

Manitoba Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation Steve Ashton noted record water flows on at least 17 streams and rivers in the regional watershed.

As of July 7, 55 municipalities and communities had declared local states of emergency and approximately 725 people had been evacuated.

Municipal officials say mopping up the mess will easily top what was spent cleaning up after the last record flood in 2011.

This is a situation “many times worse” than 2011, said Edward councillor, Debbie McMechan, whose municipality declared a state of emergency June 5. The cost will be far higher too and the bill harder to foot.

Their entire municipal budget is just over $2 million and the extent of the damages to their roads and bridges is massive, she said.

“It’ll be a lot easier to count the roads that aren’t (damaged),” she said. “I don’t want to sound dramatic but this is definitely going to cost in the millions (to repair).”

Crop insurance won’t come anywhere near compensating farmers this time around, she added.

“It is in no way a tool that can be used in a situation like this,” she said. “That’s like emptying one of these spots with a teaspoon.”

McMechan also expressed frustration that years of pleading for long-term flood mitigation from the region has been ignored.

Provincial premier, Greg Selinger said at week’s end the extent of flood damages won’t be known for some time, and would depend on how the situation unfolded in the coming days.

Heroism

What residents in the flooded southwest were able to tally last week were the local acts of heroism and resiliency as the week unfolded.

“We’re farm people. We just cope. We are people who help each other,” said Pierson resident Aileen Tucker who teamed up with other local women to assist Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization in finding out what people in the area needed.

Volunteers in Portage la Prairie fill sandbags that will be used to shore up dikes and protect properties along the Assinboine River.  Photo: Shannon VanRaes

Volunteers in Portage la Prairie fill sandbags that will be used to shore up dikes and protect properties along the Assinboine River.  Photo: Shannon VanRaes
photo: Shannon VanRaes

That led to what they jokingly called an organized “drug run,” taking orders and co-ordinating deliveries of critical medications such as insulin.

With only two routes left into Pierson, a handful of volunteer drivers made the treacherous trips over watery roads and a makeshift, two-plank bridge to the Melita pharmacy to bring back deliveries of medicine and groceries.

A helicopter was on call in Brandon in case any residents cut off due to road closures required immediate emergency help.

Outside town, farm families were marooned on their yards as stories of floating quads and tractors swept off roadways circulated.

“We could probably get to Pierson if we drove over some roads with four to six inches of water on it, but we won’t try it,” said cattle producer Ted Artz July 3 whose farm, divided by the now-raging Gainsborough Creek, is just a half-dozen miles from the Saskatchewan and North Dakota borders. Surveying fields they’d ordinarily be cutting hay from by now, Artz said he’s never seen the rainfall or a landscape so inundated by water in the 40 years they’ve farmed here.

Muster resources

Selinger, accompanied by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said July 6 governments will muster all possible resources to help restore infrastructure and get people moving again throughout what he called the “very stressed communities” of the southwest.

But eyeing the watery world around them last week, Artz said the cash and time needed for it is practically incomprehensible.

“We’ll put this thing back together,” he said. “But it will take time and a lot of money. It took three years to get the bridge at Coulter (over the Souris River on PR 251) put back together. That was one bridge.”

A mobile recovery office was scheduled to be set up in communities in the southwest area of Manitoba beginning with the town of Virden this week, with staff available to answer questions and take applications for disaster financial assistance.

Meanwhile, at week’s start a massive effort was underway to protect up to 350 properties as soldiers from CFB Shilo arrived in Portage la Prairie to help municipal workers and volunteers begin sandbagging and protect properties along the Assiniboine there, including about 150 properties south of the Hoop and Holler Bend southeast of Portage la Prairie.

The province had warned that a controlled release through the Hoop and Holler outlet would be used as a last resort to prevent dike breaches farther downstream.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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