HOOP AND HOLLER BEND, Man. — Lourens Arendse was grading and bagging onions on his prosperous vegetable farm in south-central Manitoba as recently as Monday afternoon.
By Tuesday morning, he was frantically loading sandbags into his truck to try to protect his property from the leading edge of a controlled release from the Assiniboine River.
While the province says 150 homes could be impacted by the release, at least one municipal official says as many as 300 houses and some of the province’s most fertile farmland could be swamped.
“We were totally caught off guard,” said Arendse, who owns LA Quality Products in the Rural Municipality of Portage la Prairie.
“We have one group sandbagging, one group laying sandbags, one group trying to get as much furniture out of the houses as we can. The unfortunate part of this whole scenario is that we didn’t get any real notice.”
In Brandon, city crews, volunteers, army reservists and jail inmates seemed to be winning the battle against the swollen Assiniboine River despite steady rain.
But the situation was different further east where Manitoba announced it would open barriers and allow the Assiniboine to spill over a 225-square-kilometre area to relieve pressure on downstream dikes. Officials said without the release, the river was likely to burst through dikes and swamp 500 square kilometres and 850 homes.
That release could start as early as Wednesday.
“It’s complete devastation in the making here,” said Arendse, who expects the planned release will inundate all 121 hectares he planned to harvest this year on his farm, which employs up to 50 people. He’s also got seven houses on his land for family and workers.
Nearby farmer Doug Connery, one of the biggest berry and vegetable growers in the area, said the decision could put his operation out of business.
“I’m a fourth-generation farmer,” said Connery, who sells over $5 million of produce a year and employs up to 150 people. “If they make this cut and it’s as bad as they say it’s going to be, this farm could be done.”
Decisions involving the release were made within hours on Monday, said Kam Blight, reeve of the Municipality of Portage la Prairie.
“We were first notified mid-afternoon (Monday). We were told we had a few days and then plans changed as of 11 o’clock last night.”
Blight said the province’s decision to deliberately flood the area was made because of the consequences of an uncontrolled rush of water through a burst dike. But many are wondering if it couldn’t have been another region to take one for the team.
“They are taking the most valuable agricultural land in the province and destroying it,” said Connery.
It’s an assessment echoed by Doug Chorney, president of Manitoba’s Keystone Agricultural Producers.
“It’s extremely great soil,” said Chorney. “Growing conditions are ideal. It’s a soil condition that is not really found anywhere else in the province.”
He said the region hasn’t experienced major flooding in decades.
Manitoba Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers has promised both federal and provincial governments will do what they can for compensation, he added.
“But I did not get assurance of 100 per cent compensation — that’s what we need to hear.”
In Brandon, the Assiniboine River may have crested Tuesday.
“We are happy to see that the river seems to be levelling off. It hasn’t really changed since yesterday,” said Brian Kayes, the city’s director of emergency management.
“But with this river, and with this year, anything can change.”
Crews spent days building up earth dikes along the banks of the river and installing levees made of one-metre-high supersized sandbags along the two main roads linking the city’s north and south sides. The water was higher than the road, but there was still 30 centimetres or more of dry space at the top of the dike.
Small amounts of water were seeping through, so the effort Tuesday was focused on shoring up defences.
“We’re out there throwing dirt in order to control seepage … to ensure the dike has a good integrity,” said Ted Snure, acting city manager.
Police were patrolling an evacuated area on the city’s south side to ensure residents from about 400 homes were obeying orders to leave. Natural gas lines were shut off to homes due to fears that, if the dikes give way, flood water could shift underground pipes and break them.
Evacuees have been given up to $29.90 a person each day and told to find a hotel or relative’s home to stay. They were being allowed to return to their properties only to retrieve medication or check on sump pumps.
Some 500 homes on the north side of the river were told they might need to evacuate as well, but officials said that wouldn’t be necessary if dikes hold and the river doesn’t rise further.
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton and Steve Lambert in Brandon