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Province lacks flood defender

Manitoba can't find replacement for critical position

Former flood forecaster Phillip Mutulu left Manitoba for a better-paying job in the private sector in Alberta. Now, the province is having a tough time finding a replacement.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Former flood forecaster Phillip Mutulu left Manitoba for a better-paying job in the private sector in Alberta. Now, the province is having a tough time finding a replacement.

The Manitoba government is prepared to go into the spring flood season without a head forecaster because it cannot find a qualified candidate, the Free Press has learned.

Sources both inside government and with ties to the government said the province is taking a six-month hiatus in its search to replace flood forecaster Phillip Mutulu, who resigned last summer, because it can't find the right person.

That would mean the province will head into flood season short-handed. The flood forecaster is the most critical position in any flood fight, dictating how government and citizens must respond to protect themselves.

If people outside government find that disquieting, so do people within Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation, the department that recently took over Water Stewardship's flood-fighting functions.

Asked if it is a scary proposition for the province to go into a flood season without a replacement for Mutulu, one department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, responded strongly: "Absolutely it is."

Officially, the province would only say "the search for a permanent director of the forecasting centre continues."

However, a government communications officer downplayed the need to find a successor to Mutulu. The spokesman said the department has bolstered its flood-forecasting technology significantly since 2011. In the interim, it has given the title of "acting head" of the Hydrologic Forecast Centre to someone who worked under Mutulu. That person is believed to be Akinbola George, although the province would not confirm it.

Infrastructure Minister Steve Ashton was not available to comment.

To alleviate concerns, the provincial spokesman added: "We can say with certainty that our team is one of the most experienced flood-forecasting units in the country and likely the continent."

But sources said the department lacks experience. And there is great confusion caused by Ashton's department taking over the flood-fighting duties from Water Stewardship.

"It's a department in turmoil, there's no question about that," a source said.

"It's certainly a concern for us," said Ralph Groening, reeve of the RM of Morris, speaking about the vacancy in the flood forecaster's chair. "We're in the flood zone. Every spring is a potential flood event."

Groening said his RM spent $100,000 on flood preparation in 2011 based on the flood forecast. But it turned out to be so inaccurate the expenditure wasn't needed.

People within Ashton's department are not surprised by the difficulty in finding a head flood forecaster.

The job requires a unique set of skills but also someone able to withstand extraordinary pressure and long hours. In 2011, the flood-forecasting team worked 12- to 18-hour days without a break for more than three months, the Manitoba 2011 Flood Review Report shows.

Mutulu reportedly took stress leave near the end of the flood in 2011. However, Mutulu denies the report. "I think most people underwent a lot of stress... Everybody took time to rest. I don't think you could call that stress leave," he said in a phone interview from Calgary, where he is now senior hydrologist with Stantec Consulting.

As for reports he had to go to hospital for stress-related symptoms, Mutulu said he did go to hospital but can't be certain stress caused his symptoms.

There are other issues with the top job. The position pays about $100,000, which a government official said is not enough. A salary in the $150,000 to $200,000 range should be offered, the official said. Mutulu is believed to have received a significant pay raise to join Stantec.

The job requires tremendous expertise. Mutulu was forecasting his first flood in 2011 without his mentor, former flood forecaster Alf Warkentin, and it didn't go well. Winnipeggers were insulated from flooding that took place mostly in western Manitoba and Lake Manitoba. But in Brandon, the Assiniboine River ended up almost two feet higher than Mutulu's office forecasted. Last-minute scrambling to fortify flood defences saved Brandon from being swamped.

On the Souris River, the crest forecast from Mutulu's office was too high. That resulted in an unnecessary and costly response. The province tore down 100-year-old trees, bulldozed private yards and built a massive dike in town for water that didn't arrive.

Mutulu's difficulties call into question the government's decision not to rehire Warkentin, who navigated the province through floods for four decades. Warkentin, who had retired just a year earlier, offered his services and was initially brought in, then was dropped. He was only permitted email contact with a senior bureaucrat who was not involved in the technical side of the flood fight.

In an interview, Warkentin was reluctant to rehash the past but believes he was barred due to a personality clash with upper management. But there is also speculation the NDP, with an election looming, viewed Warkentin as a possible liability. Warkentin is known for his candour with the media and represented a potential wild card.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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