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Lessons learned from Flood of the Century

Lori Penner

A panel of experts discussed the impact of the Flood of the Century, and the influence it has had on flood proofing and water management in the Red River Valley

A panel of experts discussed the impact of the Flood of the Century, and the influence it has had on flood proofing and water management in the Red River Valley


They were at the forefront of one of Manitoba’s worst natural disasters, and 20 years later, municipal officials and provincial experts gathered in Morris to share their perspective of what became known as “The Flood of the Century”.
The historic 1997 flood, which was the worst to hit the Red River Valley since 1886, created a 1,000 square mile lake of muddy water, 70 miles between the U.S. border and Winnipeg.  In its path, the deluge forced the evacuation of nearly 28,000 residents, and the destruction of hundreds of rural properties.
At a public presentation hosted by the Red River Basin Commission, six speakers reminisced about the challenges faced and the lessons learned from that infamous flood.
While the event was an opportunity to look back and evaluate the progress of flood mitigation over the past two decades, it also provided options on how to manage flood events in the future.
Appropriately dubbed “Treading Water”, the presentation included reflections from Herm Martens, former reeve for the R.M. of Morris, former Emerson mayor Wayne Arseny, and Roseau River First Nation elder Charlie Nelson.
Discussing the impact and implications of the flood were Manitoba Infrastructure executive director Steve Topping, Prairie Climate Centre director of planning Hank Venema, and Red River Basin Commission executive director Lance Yohe.
Emerson was the first Manitoba community in the flood’s path. Mayor of the time Wayne Arseny says in spite of a massive April blizzard and grave flood forecasts, the reality of any kind of danger didn’t really start to sink in until the Grand Forks dike was breached, forcing the evacuation of about 52,000 residents there.
As the water quickly rose, Emerson became the focus of world-wide news. As the first point of entry for the water to cross from the U.S. into Canada, Arseny said he knew that  their efforts in facing the Mighty Red could provide hope to other ring-diked communities like Letellier, St. Jean and Morris further downstream.
But with the threat of flood, there also came a flood of advice. “We had to deal with officials who had no previous flood experience,” he said. And with the arrival of the army, there was a whole new era of command that didn’t always sit well with residents. “They were a worthwhile support mechanism, but there were a lot of issues with outside experts coming in and trying to do what wasn’t necessary.”
Sandbagging and reinforcing the ring dike was the initial, watchful approach.
Then came the premier’s arrival in Emerson. “He told me I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news,” Arseny said. “The good news is you’ve still got two feet of dike left. The bad news is you’ve got two feet of water coming.”
What followed was a total evacuation and the construction of a three-and-a-half-mile plywood dike. “We were the test of Canadian diking technology. We needed to be the first community to beat the Red River.”
With the help of the army, fire department and volunteers, the plywood dike was built in just a few days. Luckily, it proved to be unnecessary. “When Emerson was saved, we provided confidence to the rest of Manitoba to continue sandbagging and not run for their lives. Other communities learned from the mistakes we had made, and by the time the water reached Morris, the mayors and councils were a little more authoritative in standing up and having a more organized structure.”
Now, two decades later, Arseny is proud of how communities banded together, and the progress the province has made since.
“Even though there were problems in administration in working through the worst flood of the century, and problems with re-entry, we turned it into a positive note. We proved that Emerson was still a safe place for residents to move to and continue doing business.”
He adds that the ongoing flood-proofing of  Hwy. 75 is proof that the departments of conservation, water resources and highways can work together to find better ways to deal with flood events. “Now we are building roads that also serve as dikes, so that’s a step in a positive direction. I think we could all learn from the flood of ‘97, and use those experiences to see that we still have more planning to do, in terms of water retention and water quality.”
Herm Martens remembers the Flood of the Century as the most exhausting 44 days of his life.
As the emergency coordinator and reeve for the R.M. of Morris at that time, Martens put in 18 hour days.
He and then deputy reeve Ralph Groening worked side by side, changing the location of their headquarters according to the flood’s path. They soon learned that battling provincial officials went right along with battling the flood. As the waters continued to rise, the Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization issued an order for everyone in the R.M. of Morris to evacuate. Martens  knew this was not what the residents wanted, so he resisted the order.
“It was the toughest decision I ever made,” he said. The municipality used their own guidelines and organized their own flood evacuation, which included very specific groups and rules.
As the water receded, and the threat diminished, he says the process of re-entry was almost as difficult as the evacuation. “Throughout the flood, there was only one injury near Emerson which is a good record for this kind of disaster. But the emotional toll was immeasurable.”
Martens said many residents took years to get over the trauma of losing homes, treasured possessions and businesses.
After the flood, the Red River Coalition was formed. Delegates toured the affected sites, and met with government officials and the army to debrief and evaluate what needed to be done to prevent or prepare for such a disaster in the future. 
“It’s so easy to try to put a disaster like this out of your mind, or convince yourself this could never happen again. But it did happen again,” Martens said.
“In my following 15 years as reeve, we had five more spring floods, two summer floods, and two dust storms that closed drainage ditches. Each of these was enough to declare a state of emergency.”
He said he’s pleased with the progress in the last 20 years. “All the dikes and mounds around the homes, farms and communities have definitely helped. The 2009 flood was nearly as high as ‘97’, and we were feeling a little guilty because we as a municipality weren’t really doing much compared to what we had done in 1997. We had mitigated most of the flood hot spots in the municipality, which allowed business and industry to continue despite the high water. There was very little to do and that was a good problem.”