BRANDON, Man. — Prime Minister Stephen Harper got a bird’s-eye view of flood-ravaged southern Manitoba on Wednesday and held out the possibility of new financial aid for disaster-prone regions across the country.
“I do think, going forward, we have to take a look at more proactive financing arrangements for mitigation,” Harper said following a helicopter tour of an area stretching from Portage la Prairie to Brandon.
“Those are discussions we’ll be having in the months to come.”
Harper made the announcement a few metres from huge sandbag dikes that are the only thing keeping the Assiniboine River from swamping hundreds of homes in low-lying areas of Brandon.
About 1,000 residents have been evacuated and another 1,000 may have to leave as well if the river rises further.
As Harper walked by the dikes, the river was one metre from the top.
Farther down river near Portage, people living in a large swath of countryside anxiously waited to see if their homes and businesses would be deliberately flooded.
The province says a so-called controlled release of water from the Assiniboine near Portage la Prairie will likely be needed to relieve pressure on dikes further downstream.
Late Wednesday, the province pushed back the time it will intentionally flood the countryside.
Government spokeswoman Cindy Stevens says crews have been able to move more water down a channel, which is upstream from where they plan to break the dike.
She says the delay gives people more time to prepare for the flooding.
Workers have already begun digging through a road acting as a dike about an hour west of Winnipeg, near Hoop and Holler Bend.
Officials have said the move would flood 225 square kilometres and could affect 150 homes, but is needed because the river could otherwise swamp 500 square kilometres and as many as 850 properties.
The situation with the controlled release has been fluid.
There is a diversion channel upstream from where the dike is to be broke.
“They’ve been able to shore it up enough for us to put more water down the diversion so we can delay the release,” said Stevens.
“I know it’s probably stressful for people that we keep moving it but we’re trying to give them as much time as possible to prepare and every bit of work they are doing on the diversion to get it flowing more water is helping with that.”
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said his government is working on a program that will see residents in the intentionally flooded area compensated for their losses. Some people have expressed concerns about caps on payouts under existing compensation programs.
“There is a cap under the existing disaster assistance program and that is why we are talking about a special compensation program that will go beyond that,” Selinger said.
“We will take a look at measures that … recognize the unique and special circumstances of the people in that area. They are playing a very valuable role in protecting Manitobans by storing water in their communities and that needs to be recognized.”
Selinger said he hopes the federal government will chip in, but it will go ahead either way.
“We are going to do something regardless, but I believe the federal government will understand the rationale for what we are doing and will be supportive as well.”
He welcomed Harper’s commitment to funding preventative measures as something that will “prevent human suffering (and) property losses.”
“At the end of the day, it’s going to save taxpayers’ money,” Selinger said.
The current program hands out money after disaster hits. It is cost-shared and Ottawa foots most of the bill for big disasters. The money, which can take years to flow, is aimed at restoring roads and other damaged infrastructure.
Harper said money might be better spent on prevention in areas prone to flooding and other disasters.
“If you look at the scale of the water and how much damage has actually been prevented by long-term mitigation measures in the past, it really is quite incredible. ”We’ve seen in the past this has been money well-spent and we just have to come to some arrangements that make sense for the future.“
Central and western Manitoba are dealing with unprecedented flooding. Forecasters say it is a once-in-300-year event. Hundreds of military troops have been helping to reinforce flood defences.
As he watched large, water-filled tube dikes fill up around his neighbour’s home near the site where the dike will be broken, farmer Ken Boyachek expressed his frustration with the lack of information he has received from government.
“I’m still wondering if it’s necessary,” Boyachek said. “We’re probably going to have to be displaced so it would be just nice to know approximately when that’s going to happen and for how long.”
Farmers have complained that valuable growing land for vegetables south of the Trans-Canada Highway will be ruined and municipal officials have suggested the number of homes that would be soaked could be a lot higher than 150.
The area that would be saved would be to the north of the Trans-Canada Highway, including parts of the rural municipalities of Portage la Prairie and Carter.
Manitoba’s chief flood fighter, Steve Topping said the intentional flooding will be slow.
“The controlled release site was selected as it provides the least risk and best management for the controlled release,” he said.
Emergency measures officials haven’t waited to move people out of the potential spill zone.
Those in homes that would be the first to be hit by diverted water have already had to leave. Others have been warned to be on “a high level of alert” for possible evacuation.
Throughout southern Manitoba, urban and rural dwellers alike have been scrambling to deal with the rising Assiniboine. Flood forecasters are not expecting the province’s largest city — Winnipeg — to be at risk.
In Brandon, city officials have warned the flood threat could last for weeks.
“This may drag on for the whole summer,” said Brian Kayes, Brandon’s director of emergency services.
“People need to understand that we can’t just pull a plug like in the bathtub and watch (the water) go down. It’s going to take a long time for this to happen.”
— With files from Scott Edmonds in Hoop and Holler Bend, Man.