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Flood anxiety surges in Manitoba, ebbs in Quebec

A man and woman make their way along a street immersed by flood waters from the Richilieu River in the town of Saint-Blaise-Sur-Richelieu, Que., Sunday, May 8, 2011.

Graham Hughes/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The sight of rising flood waters in Manitoba is so irresistible to locals that the City of Brandon declared a state of emergency Sunday to deal with the public safety threat posed by gawking onlookers.

The Canadian military was called in Sunday evening to deal with the possibility of further flooding on the Assiniboine River, which has already risen to the highest levels in recorded history.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger called the Prime Minister to ask that military resources be made available to re-enforce dikes on the Assiniboine east of Brandon, between Portage-la-Prairie and Headingley, Man. He said expected rainfalls this week combined with last week's snowstorms have created dangerously high river flows that will require extra help to contain.

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More than 200 soldiers are expected to be deployed to help with sand-bagging and other efforts starting Monday. They could be needed for a week or more, Mr. Selinger said.

The Assiniboine River is nearly seven metres higher than normal and 20 to 30 times wider in some places. In Brandon, a city of 40,000 two hours west of Winnipeg, the city's massive dikes are attracting people who want to get a glimpse of the river's swollen grandeur. That presents a public safety risk, according to the city's emergency co-ordinator Brian Kayes.

The onlookers could erode the effectiveness of the dike or they might get too close and fall in, Mr. Kayes said. "They're one slip away from going into a river they wouldn't get out of," he said.

By declaring an emergency the City of Brandon now has the power to restrict access to public areas. It also has the authority to trespass on private property to fight the flooding.

Mr. Kayes said flood waters are expected to crest a week from now, and high water levels could remain for a month to six weeks. The state of emergency will automatically expire in two weeks, but it can be renewed if necessary.

More than 1,100 Manitobans have been forced from their homes by flooding. Seventy provincial roads are closed.

In Quebec, a week of predicted warm weather should provide the flood-ravaged province with much-hoped-for respite, authorities say.

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"Water levels are falling two to five centimetres a day and we expect this trend to continue until at least Friday," Yves Leroux, director-general of Public Security for the Montérégie region, said in a press conference on Sunday afternoon in Vénise-sur-Québec.

He cautioned, however, that flooding remains widespread, particularly in the hardest hit areas around Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River and it could take a while before residents can return to their homes in regions where there were evacuations.

Robert Leconte, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Sherbrooke, said water levels need to fall by at least 30 centimetres before the rivers return to their beds and they can absorb additional precipitation.

"This will take a week or 10 days if the weather is not too bad," he said.

A vast swath of 20 municipalities stretching south of Montreal toward the U.S. border has been hit by the worst deluge in 150 years.

According to Quebec Public Security officials, more than 3,000 homes have been flooded, including more than 1,000 where residents have been ordered out because of the danger.

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Many residents have been reluctant to leave their homes because they are trying to protect their property and they fear looting.

But Lieutenant Michel Brunet of the Sûreté du Québec provincial police, said the flooded areas are being patrolled by car and boat and "there has not been a single criminal complaint since the beginning of this crisis."

In addition to police, 760 Canadian Forces soldiers have been deployed to help deal with the flooding. Initially, their job was to fill sandbags and build dykes to protect property. But with the drop in water levels, priorities have changed.

"Our priorities have shifted from protecting infrastructure to assisting citizens," said Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Bernard.

Troops have been ferrying residents to their homes to retrieve valuables and doing "naval reconnaissance" to ensure there is no looting.

The Quebec government has, to date, provided $1.1-million in financial assistance but vowed to provide much more to help residents rebuild their homes.

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Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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