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'Boondoggle,' Early Action Keep Canadian City Afloat

Decades of ground work pay off, so far, in blocking Red River flood

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 1997


Up here, they're calling it the "Red Sea."

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The Red River that swallowed Grand Forks and Fargo, N.D., has swollen into a 770-square-mile lake spreading across table-flat Manitoba farmlands toward Winnipeg in the largest flood to hit Manitoba and the United States northern plains in 100 years.

Across Canada, media coverage of the flood has brought Canadians together in a way not often seen in a country where provinces often go their own way. It has also ignited a debate over the government's decision to hold a national election June 2 despite the growing flood crisis.

Politics aside, thoughts have turned to the question of why Winnipeg has survived with minor damage while Grand Forks went under. Many say the key reason is former Manitoba Premier Duff Robelin's insistence on building "Duff's Ditch" for $60 million in the 1960s, though it was called a boondoggle then.

Today Mr. Robelin is hailed as a "visionary" for building what is officially the Red River Floodway. So big it can be seen by astronauts circling the earth, the canal, dry in summer, can carry Red River overflow 30 miles around the city to a point where it all pours back into the Red. New Orleans is the only city in North America with anything like it.

But others say Winnipeg was spared simply because the Grand Forks tragedy shook local officials and residents out of complacency. Early confidence that Duff's Ditch - which shielded the city in a 1979 flood - would do so again all by itself were superseded by new contingency plans.

After Grand Forks' dikes fell, Winnipeg officials deployed 200 pieces of heavy equipment to quickly construct a 10-foot high, 25-mile-long dike westward from where the Red River enters the city. So far that dike and strenuous around-the-clock sandbagging in the city are holding and appear to have saved Winnipeg.

Residents mostly praise the preparations. Gary Storey, leaning over the railing of a bridge, gazes at the fast-flowing river just a few feet below the roadway. "It will be a couple of weeks before we can say we've won the battle," he says. "But the city, province, and armed forces have done a great job. If we lose it now, it will only be because of the weather."

After displacing more than 60,000 North Dakotans two weeks ago, the wild Red River last week forced at least 24,000 Manitobans out of their homes as well, about 8,000 of them in southern Winnipeg.

The surging waters submerged two towns and about 800 farms in the Red River Valley north of the Canada-US border. But eight other towns with permanent "ring dikes" encircling them have held so far.

Winnipeg, the big question mark, is still mostly dry due to a week of last-minute herculean efforts to prepare.

The flood's crest hit the city of 665,000 Thursday night, with the Red River rising to 24.5 feet above winter ice level (about five feet above its previous all-time high). So far all but one or two secondary dikes in the southern part of the city have held.

Danger to Winnipeg remains high because peak flows could last up to two weeks. Officials were increasingly confident, however, that diligent maintenance of the 5.2 million sandbags holding back the river as it runs through the heart of the city won't fail. Wave action caused by southerly winds, however, threatens the Brunkild Dike. A breach would cause water levels in the city to rise up to two feet.

Lately, more confidence and goodwill than water has been flowing. Besides donations, volunteers from as far away as Toronto have flown in to help sandbag. Southeast of Winnipeg, residents of the hamlet of St. Anne, population 1,511, are going all out to play host to about 360 Ojibway Indians evacuated from their Rosseau River reservation about 75 miles father south in the flood zone.