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Premier reassures Manitobans hours before deliberate flood unleashed

Heavy equipment works 24 hours a day to shore up the walls of the Portage Diversion on Tuesday May 10, 2011 in Winnipeg. The diversion is full to capacity running towards Lake Manitoba.

Joe Bryksa/The Canadian Press

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger took to the airwaves to reassure flood-weary residents hours before his government planned to deliberately send water over a large swath of rural land that contains more than 150 homes.

"This was not an easy decision," Mr. Selinger said in a prepared statement aired during Friday's supper-hour newscasts.

"We have worked to delay the timing of the release for as long as we safely could to allow more homes to be protected.

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"If we stood back and allowed nature to run its course, we would face an almost certain uncontrolled break of the dike. An uncontrolled break would be catastrophic and unpredictable, spilling water onto more than 500 square kilometres of land."

Mr. Selinger's government is dealing with record flooding along the Assiniboine River in central and western Manitoba. It has swamped low-lying farmland, cut off roads and forced more than 1,300 people to evacuate low-lying areas in Brandon, where temporary dikes are the only thing keeping homes in the city's valley dry.

Winnipeg is not affected and is protected by a floodway.

With the river still rising, government officials confirmed Friday that they plan to cut into a dike south of Portage la Prairie shortly after daybreak Saturday to release pressure on the river.

"Our intention is to keep this to a slow and controlled flow. We'll have heavy equipment stationed around the spill area to further control and manage the water flow," Steve Topping, executive director of Manitoba's Water Stewardship department, told reporters.

People in the area have been scrambling to protect their homes with sandbags, helped by crews, volunteers and hundreds of army personnel. But officials say the water will spread slowly.

It will initially flow at a rate of 500 cubic feet per second - enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every three minutes - and be increased gradually every day to a maximum of 3,000 cubic feet per second.

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The water is expected to pool in low-lying areas and slowly ooze over the area's grid roads, like syrup covering a waffle. It will likely spread only three kilometres downstream in the first 24 hours, Topping said, and take more than a week to cover the entire projected area of 225 square kilometres. Homes that are above road grade should be OK, officials have said, while those below grade require sandbagging.

Mr. Selinger reiterated a promise to compensate those affected by the move.

"Families and producers affected by the controlled release will receive compensation to cover damages, income losses and the cost of recovering the land after the flood waters recede," he said.

"This is a flood unlike any we've seen before and the fight is long from over. But we'll work day in and day out to stay ahead of the flood and do everything we can to support Manitoba families."

The intentional flood is only one challenge in a flood season that has dragged on since early April and has affected most of southern Manitoba.

North of Portage La Prairie, water levels on Lake Manitoba rose suddenly Friday, forcing hundreds of cottage owners to think about leaving. There were no mandatory evacuations, the government said, but strong winds and water rushing in from rivers were causing waves to rise up on waterfront properties.

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The province sent a sandbagging machine to the area and was working with area municipalities to distribute the bags.

Earlier in the spring, the Red River in eastern Manitoba forced some 2,000 to leave their homes, mostly from aboriginal reserves where rising water cut off road access.

So far this year, 100 homes across the province have been flooded, although only 10 suffered anything more than basement flooding.

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