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Manitoba’s flood forecaster gets ready for busy season

Phillip Mutulu says that if you want to understand the science of water movement, Manitoba is the place to be.

John Woods/The Globe and Mail

With apologies to Premier Greg Selinger, Phillip Mutulu probably has the toughest job in Manitoba.

As the province's head flood forecaster, Mr. Mutulu is responsible for distilling endless streams of data, boiling down a boatload of weather watching and grappling with some peculiar and complex Prairie hydrology to determine how much of a deluge Manitoba faces each spring.

This week, he upgraded the province's outlook to "major flooding" from mild or moderate water swells due to a hard winter and late-season heaps of snow. Flooding this year appears on track with the 2009 event, but it's not on par with the devastating 2011 swamping.

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Now in his third full season at the helm (he replaced Alf Warkentin, who spent 41 years as the province's chief flood prognosticator and became a household name in the process), the 53-year-old spent a waterlogged childhood in Machakos, Kenya, trained as a meteorologist in Africa and has a doctorate in water resources engineering from the University of Calgary. He talks about what it means to be the flood king of Manitoba.

When did you become interested in floods?

My interest was basically in trying to understand how water moves and how the landscape interacts with water. That is really what led to my interest in forecasting. Both in my undergraduate and graduate studies, I did a lot of work and research in the development of hydrologic models that could be used to simulate or to forecast water levels and water volume.

Did you ever experience a flood personally, other than work-related?

I was born in Kenya, and this is an area that is very vulnerable to flooding. We also had many locations where rain would come in torrents. It would be very heavy sometimes, and normally because of lack of protection, or lack of forecasting, it would occasionally cause a lot of damage.

Did anybody else in your family have an interest in weather or meteorology?

My grandfather never really went much to school, but he had a lot of interest in observing weather. He would tell you what would happen. Sometimes he would say, "If you see the clouds looking this way, then we are probably going to have rain." It was just a skill that he developed through experience. It's not that he was trained.

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Was he right?

On many occasions he would be right. But forecasting is a lot of number crunching and mathematics, and that was one of my major interests right from elementary school through high school as well as in university.

Is Manitoba the place to be in terms of all things flood-related?

Yes. The reason is that Manitoba is at the centre of very large watersheds, and each one of those large watersheds has got different characteristics in terms of area and land use and climate. We have watersheds spanning all the way from Alberta, from the United States and, of course, Ontario. They all come to Lake Winnipeg. I guess if anyone wants to understand the science of water movement, which we call hydrologic sequencing, Manitoba is the best place to be.

How much consultation do you do with your predecessor, Alf Warkentin?

When I got appointed to this position he was there for quite some time to double bunk with me. During the major flood of 2011, we were exchanging ideas. … It's not like he just retired and left us alone. We talked to him a few months ago.

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Is springtime for you kind of like being an accountant at tax time?

It depends on the magnitude of the flood – 2011 was pretty stressful for us because you work very long hours, you have to synthesize a lot of information. … Sometimes you don't always get it right, but just to know that you can give some information that could be used by the public so that they can be prepared to protect themselves, that in itself is very fulfilling.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More


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