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The Globe and Mail

Anxiety rises as emergency deadline to open Manitoba floodgates nears

Volunteers sandbag a dike along the Assiniboine River in Brandon, Man., on April 9, 2011.

John Woods/The Canadian Press/John Woods/The Canadian Press

In a straight line from his front door, Sandor Arendse watched work crews rip away at the only thing standing between his home and one of the worst floods Manitoba has ever seen.

Mr. Arendse's house is on the front lines of Manitoba's last-ditch attempt to limit damage from a deluge of a magnitude that comes along once every three centuries.

"I came home, I saw all the heavy equipment … I had a panic attack," he said. "We're planning for the worst."

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If flows in the swollen Assiniboine River continue to climb, by noon Wednesday those crews will punch a 65-metre hole in the dike and let loose a "controlled release" of water, flooding farmland and hundreds of homes - but, the province hopes, preventing an "uncontrolled release" that could swamp many more.

It's an extraordinary move, admitted Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton. But this is an extraordinary flood.

"I'm running out of words to describe how unprecedented it is," he told The Globe and Mail Tuesday evening. "A flood of this magnitude would happen only once every 300 years."

To put that in perspective, the closest comparison would be a flood on the Red River in the 1820s. "On the Assiniboine, really this is unprecedented. I don't think we even have a comparison," Mr. Ashton said.

The decision to purposely puncture painstakingly constructed dikes isn't taken lightly, he said. And he emphasized that if things improve by Wednesday, the province may not have to cause a miniature flood as a flood-prevention measure.

But the choice facing him Monday evening was stark: The province's engineers had repeatedly crunched the numbers, trying to squeeze every possible drop of added capacity out of the dikes and diversion channels. The rainy forecast did not bode well.

"It became a very clear choice: Do nothing or go to a controlled release," he said. "The option of doing nothing was really not an option."

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The final decision came by 5:30 p.m. Monday. But throughout the following day, people bracing for the controlled release of floodwaters were struggling to figure out what was planned and when, how to prepare and whether their homes, farms and businesses were in the water's path.

"I did see a police car drive by here, but no one has actually stopped by to tell me anything," Mr. Arendse said. "Everything I've heard is from the media."

Late Tuesday afternoon, Portage La Prairie rural municipality reeve Kam Blight said he still had no guidance from the province as to its plans. "Zero, at this point," he said.

Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Blight estimated the number of homes affected by the controlled release could be much higher than the approximately 200 the province predicted.

"I have a really hard time with this decision… I'm not sure how we can control where this water goes," he said. "I feel that, unfortunately, there's a lot of people that are not in the flood area that are being sacrificed. And a lot of their lands and homesteads and businesses are going to be flooded out to relieve downstream pressure."

Mr. Ashton acknowledged there's been some confusion but said rural municipalities are responsible for letting affected residents know what's going on. "I think, given the short period of time involved, there's been a very significant mobilization," he said.

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By late Tuesday, there were 2,743 people evacuated throughout the province, more than 1,000 of them from Brandon. The province estimates 700 people - and many livestock in the farm-rich area - would be affected by the controlled release.

The province asked Ottawa to have the military assist on Sunday, and requested several hundred more troops Tuesday. A press release sent out late Tuesday evening from the Prime Minister's Office said Stephen Harper will be briefed on the flooding situation Wednesday morning at Southport's airport -- several kilometres west of Hoop and Holler Bend, where the controlled release would take place.

There are no estimates as to how much these record-breaking floods will cost Manitoba. But the province had already racked up a bill of more than $70-million in flood prevention and mitigation before this week's more extreme measures. It has also committed to compensating anyone affected by the controlled release out of a special fund, on top of the customary disaster financial assistance.

"To be quite frank," Mr. Ashton said, "we've been more focused on response, what needs to be done, than the cost."

The next several days are critical: Weather conditions and swelling river levels will determine whether the dike is cut and water released; even once the river has crested, water levels are expected to remain high for weeks.

Mr. Arendse isn't waiting around to find out. He spent Tuesday trying to protect his newly purchased house as best he could, and making preparations to move his wife and five-month-old son, Nathan, to stay in Winnipeg.

"I don't want to be the guy that's stuck here when they open the floodgates."

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