Red River Flood | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Red River Flood

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 12, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

The flood of the century, they have been calling it in Manitoba, an awesome demonstration of nature’s raw might.
Red River Flood 1997
Flooding at Ste Agathe, Man. Southern Manitoba's rivers flow through narrow trench-like channels over flat prairie (courtesy Maclean's).
Spring Flooding, Selkirk, Manitoba.
The worst ice jam in local history causes flooding, closing Selkirk Bridge over Red River, flooding highway and causing evacuations. Subzero temperatures causes flooded overflow to freeze.
Flooding of George Richardson
May 1997 flood (courtesy Maclean's).
Red River and Floodway
The map shows the area of the devastating 1997 flood and the route of the protective floodway (courtesy Maclean's).

Red River Flood

Ron Isaac's dark red pickup is parked at the end of a narrow country lane, right at the point where the roadway's greasy surface disappears beneath the wind-whipped wavelets of a coffee-colored sea. Inside the truck's cab, the 62-year-old Manitoba farmer and seed-grain dealer points towards a distant clump of trees, one of a dozen similar isolated islands of greenery rising from the roiling waters. "That's my place over there on what used to be the south bank of the Morris River," he says, matter-of-factly. "My seed bins are gone, water's up to the main floor around the house." He thumbs the brim of a battered baseball cap from his brow, leans an elbow on the steering wheel. "You know, I've lived in this valley since I was a boy, fought all the big floods," he continues, ticking off the particularly bad years - 1950, 1966, 1979, 1996 - on the fingers of one hand, signposts in a lifetime of struggle with the implacable power of the Red River and its many tributaries. "I thought I'd seen everything that old river could throw at me. But this one," he sighs, giving his head a single, tiny shake, "this one has been the great-granddaddy of them all."

The flood of the century, they have been calling it in Manitoba, an awesome demonstration of nature's raw might. In its relentless march northward, it spawned an enormous inland sea, a 2,000-square-kilometre fan of murky water stretching all the way from the United States border, 110 km north to the southern suburbs of Winnipeg. The Red flowed over 800 farms, inundating some of the richest soil in the country and affecting 10 of Manitoba's 14 federal ridings. Close to 25,000 residents fled their homes for higher ground, 8,000 of them in the provincial capital. A vast assemblage of machinery and a huge army have been mobilized to fight the menace, countless thousands of civilians as well as 8,500 soldiers, sailors and airmen from the Canadian Forces - three times the combined strength of the country's United Nations peacekeepers in Bosnia, Haiti and the Golan Heights.

In fact, this is the country's largest single military endeavor since the Korean conflict. And last week, as the Red crept ever closer to Winnipeg, all of the marshalled forces battled frantically to keep the rising waters out of the capital. "It's a war," said Lt.-Col. Steve Gillies of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery as he directed the work of 600 troops under his command southwest of the city. "The enemy is at the gates. We cannot let him enter."

By Saturday evening, that mission was largely accomplished. As the Red's crest finally rolled into Winnipeg late last Thursday, May 1, the city's defences creaked a little, springing an isolated leak or two, but in the end they held. The already swollen river rose a foot Thursday night, climbing to 24.4 feet above the winter ice level, enough to barely brush some of the city's bridges. Not enough, however, to spill over the city's 200 km of primary diking, a 26.5-foot-high system of raised riverside roads, parks, embankments and railroad tracks. "Today is looking good," breathed a relieved Winnipeg Mayor Susan Thompson as she arrived in her office on Friday morning. "What happened in the past 24 hours is a pretty positive development."

For that narrow escape, the city's 650,000 residents owe a large vote of thanks to the Red River Floodway. Completed in 1968, the 47-km-long water diversion was widely derided as "Duff's Ditch" when former Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin authorized its construction. But last week, as the Red's crest was moving 75,000 cubic feet of water every second through the heart of the city, the Floodway sent another 60,000 cubic feet per second coursing east of the city. To be sure, there were worries expressed by residents north of Winnipeg as they watched the Red's waters boil furiously out of the Floodway's exit, increasing the odds of severe flooding on the city's northern fringes. Their concerns echoed the complaints of flood victims south of the city in such unprotected communities as Ste. Agathe and Grande Pointe, where some residents felt they had been abandoned to save Winnipeg. "There's no doubt in my mind we're being sacrificed," said Grande Pointe resident Claude Lemoine, exhausted after a night of futile dike construction. But there could be no doubt that Duff's once notorious ditch played the key role in saving Manitoba's capital from untold damage.

Despite the reprieve, the danger has not yet completely passed. "We've still got another week of white-knuckle time," Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, a hydraulic engineer himself, told Maclean's. The peril lies in several directions. In the first place, the Red's high water is not going to ebb for some time. "That crest is going to stay up there for the next four or five days," cautioned Larry Whitney, Manitoba's chief flood liaison officer, on May 2. Even when it does finally move on, elevated water levels will likely persist in Winnipeg for at least two or three more weeks, all the time eating away at the city's extensive network of dikes.

Especially vulnerable are the secondary dikes that have been hastily constructed inside the fortified ring road all over the city by hordes of civilian volunteers, often working around the clock, and in the past few days by soldiers drawn from units right across the country. Most of these are slapdash affairs, fashioned from the Red River Valley's viscous mud and reinforced with roughly eight million sandbags - so ubiquitous a sight that local residents have now taken to labelling the sand-filled white plastic sacks "Red River perogies." Noted Winnipeg's chief flood engineer Doug McNeil: "All sandbagged dikes leak at some point, and the longer the river remains high, the greater the chances of a leak."

To counter the threat, the city has formed two shifts of 35 teams to continually monitor the secondary dikes. But there have already been dozens of leaks in the system. On the day the Red's crest rolled into Winnipeg, there were nine complete failures, resulting in the evacuation of dozens of families from threatened homes, including three apartment buildings in the downtown core.

Outside of Winnipeg, there is another potential peril lying to the southwest along the newly built Brunkild dike, sometimes called the Z dike for its zigzagging 40-km route, from the point where the Red enters Winnipeg to the tiny hamlet of Brunkild. The dike, an eight-metre-high wall of mud and crushed rock, was hastily erected in the past three weeks to prevent the Red from making an end run around Winnipeg's southern defences. Manitoba authorities feared the river's crest might swing west once it ran into the Winnipeg choke point, flowing first into the La Salle River, then coursing down the La Salle Valley to inundate the capital from the west. By itself, the Brunkild dike is an impressive sight. "It's a bloody engineering marvel that I think people around here are going to remember for a long time," said Gillies of the Horse Artillery as his troops struggled in bitterly cold 40 km/h winds, spiking erosion-resistant plastic sheeting along the dike's entire length.

By the end of last week, the Red's bulging crest, two metres deep in places, was lapping at the foot of the Brunkild dike. But the worst is yet to come. Provincial water resources engineers expect high water to hit the dike early this week, when forecast rainfall and southerly winds, gusting up to 40 km, could exacerbate the situation. One - or several - major breaches in the barrier might well spell trouble for Winnipeg's southern suburbs, especially the 4,200 residents of the bedroom community of St. Norbert.

Lying just beyond the perimeter highway that rings Winnipeg and is itself a primary dike, St. Norbert sits directly in the path of any floodwater that would flow from a breach in the Brunkild dike. To protect residents from that possibility, Manitoba's authorities ordered the complete evacuation of the community last Tuesday. Early that morning, as police and soldiers set up roadblocks to oversee the pullout, volunteers applied last-minute touches to a sandbagged dike around St. Norbert church, the same church where Father N. J. Ritchot and Louis Riel met on the night of Oct. 21, 1869, to launch the rebellion that led eventually to the founding of Manitoba. A few blocks away, Riel's great-grandnephew Joseph Riel, his wife, Joanne, and his mother, Marie, were packing up their belongings. "Last week, we volunteered to help out in St. Adolphe," said Joseph, a 37-year-old salesman. "We never dreamed that pretty soon they'd be volunteering to help us." His mother, pointing out that the family has been fighting Red River flooding for many generations, added: "But there had been nothing of the magnitude of this flood. When you see what happened in Ste. Agathe, it just gives you a chill."

Ste. Agathe, 24 km due south of Winnipeg, met its fate in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The town of 500, which sits on the west bank of the Red, was protected by a dike running along the river's edge. But it was overcome by a wall of water that rushed in from the opposite direction. Propelled by strong winds from the northwest, the flood washed over a highway and an elevated set of railway tracks west of the community. "Essentially, the water came in the backdoor," said flood liaison officer Whitney. Ste. Agathe postmaster Jean Champagne, the last civilian to flee the town, recalled: "A big, massive body of water came jumping over the west side of the highway. You could feel it coming. It was gushing, just like when you hear running rapids."

Comments like that added urgency to the efforts then under way in Winnipeg and elsewhere in the province. Despite the gravity of the situation, however, there was a curious, almost festive, current running through all the preparations, aided by the outpouring of support - material as well as emotional - from the rest of the country. At the Brunkild dike, Gillies' troops, drawn from units scattered across the country, seemed to be enjoying the entire affair. Not far away, in the hockey arena at Sanford where the Horse Artillery's 2nd Regiment, based in Petawawa, Ont., was bivouacked, Bombardier Rob Morningstar, a 29-year-old native of St. Catharines, Ont., interrupted a lunch break to compare duty in Manitoba to that in war-torn Bosnia. "It's safer here and the food's a lot better," he commented. "It's also nice to do something for a change that might help to clean up the military's image in this country - you know, Somalia and all that stuff."

Much the same kind of spirit seemed to prevail in Winnipeg, where whole battalions of civilians daily volunteered for sandbag duty. "Sandbagging at school wasn't as much fun as at Kingston Crescent," said 12-year-old Jenneke Luit, a Grade 7 student at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, not far from The Forks, where the Assiniboine River meets the Red in the heart of the city. "It was snowing, we were in the mud, and we ended up about two feet from the river that someone said has every disease known to man in it," the girl continued. "Kids were throwing sandbags in the mud on purpose. I had mud in my hair, caked in. And the worms were coming out, getting frozen."

Dan Donahue, a Kingston Crescent resident, remembered the moment the volunteers, including young Jenneke, turned up. "It's a very emotional thing, especially those first moments when the first group of 100 or so people arrive at your door and start sandbagging," said the music producer. "It's pretty phenomenal. At first, you feel, 'Oh, my nice quiet neighborhood is overrun.' And then, when they're all gone, you find that you miss them."

But if there have been lighter moments in the fight to rein in the Red, there have also been frayed nerves and anxious moments, particularly in the days leading up to the arrival of the river's crest. "There is no relief from the stress," Premier Filmon tells a visitor in his office on the second floor at the provincial legislature. He does not look any worse for wear, but he confesses all the same that his background - a master's degree in hydraulics and water resource management - is a mixed blessing. "It may be detrimental to have some technical knowledge," the premier remarks. "I'm not a worrier by nature, but I've seen the consequences of a burst dam and I've often gotten up lately with a huge lump in my stomach. Even though I'm relying on an army of people working co-operatively together to meet this challenge, I still have this sense that I'm ultimately responsible and that's a pretty scary thought."

Even if the river's power continues to be held in check, dealing with the aftermath is certain to be a daunting task. There are, as yet, no accurate estimates of the cost of the damage inflicted upon Manitoba. The bill, however, is likely to amount to several times the $25 million that Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy passed on to Filmon last week as a kind of down payment in advance of the final tally.

In the meantime, Canadians across the country have been opening their wallets, as well as their cupboards, to aid Manitoba's beleaguered flood victims. The Red Cross said Friday that it wants to raise $10 million through the Manitoba Food Appeal. Dozens of corporations have already donated, pushing the fund to $500,000 after three days. And on Friday morning, the besieged citizens of Winnipeg donated $15,000 in just one hour in a telethon. "The fund-raising is going great," said Red Cross spokesman Guy Tessier in Winnipeg. "We have raised about $500,000 in just one week." The major banks are all accepting donations, and the amount of money flowing in has been startling. By week's end, the Royal Bank, in conjunction with Maclean's, Rogers Multi-Media Inc. and CanWest Global, had taken in $150,000; Scotiabank, $43,000, and Toronto-Dominion Bank another $21,000. The Red Cross, meanwhile, had received $465,000 in pledges from across the country.

Aid has been coming in all shapes and forms. The Toronto Blue Jays baseball team collected money, as did the Calgary Philharmonic orchestra. In British Columbia, the Penticton Rotary Club is sending bottled water donated by a Vancouver company. Residents of the Saguenay River Valley in Quebec, with memories of last summer's disastrous floods fresh in their collective memory, raised $100,000. The CBC's Peter Gzowski staged a nationwide charity benefit on Morningside.

The public response has been so overwhelming that Gillies, for one, claimed to detect what he described as a "dawning sense of a patriotism" arising out of the "battle against a common foe." That may well be true. But if it is, there are those who have paid a terrible price for the development. They are people like Red River farmer Ron Isaac, whose home and livelihood currently lie at the bottom of a shallow, muddy sea. "It's a very, very hard thing to bear," he mutters as he sits in his red pickup, staring across the churning water towards the trees that mark all that remains of what was once a flourishing farm and business. Thousands of Manitobans share his plight.

Maclean's May 12, 1997