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Race against flood disaster

Soldiers build sandbag dikes; Harper tours water-ravaged areas

Soldiers from CFB Shilo help fortify Keven Van Camp’s home near St. François Xavier Sunday afternoon.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Soldiers from CFB Shilo help fortify Keven Van Camp’s home near St. François Xavier Sunday afternoon.

Soldiers, volunteers, contractors and municipal officials are racing against the clock to protect hundreds of properties and shore up dikes along the Assiniboine River east of Portage la Prairie before a wave of water arrives from the west.

Selinger (left) with Harper

Enlarge Image

Selinger (left) with Harper (CP)

Sisters Sadie and Emma Poczik play in their grandparents' pool near the floodwater in Brandon.

Enlarge Image

Sisters Sadie and Emma Poczik play in their grandparents' pool near the floodwater in Brandon. (TIM SMITH / BRANDON SUN)

Some 400 military personnel are now on the ground in Manitoba aiding in the flood fight.

West of St. François Xavier on Sunday, retired teacher Keven Van Camp watched in amazement as a sandbag dike sprang up around his home with the help of 20 military reservists, two dozen volunteers -- some from as far away as Winnipeg and MacGregor -- family members and contractors supplied by the local municipality.

What took a crew of volunteers five weeks to accomplish in the last big flood in 2011 would be completed in a single day. "We're immensely grateful," Van Camp said, as he ensured the volunteers were fed and hydrated on a warm day. "It's amazing -- to get that much done in so short a period of time."

Time is in short supply as provincial flood forecasters expect the Assiniboine east of Portage la Prairie will have to handle flows of 18,000 cubic feet per second within a few days, up from 10,500 cfs last week.

The extra load will severely test the river's century-old dikes, and contractors were out Sunday carrying out last-minute repairs to a dozen or more suspected weak spots between Portage and Headingley.

Another 34,000 cfs will be channelled to Lake Manitoba via the Portage Diversion. Last-minute work continued on the weekend to build up and repair the banks of the diversionary channel, which was originally constructed to handle 25,000 cfs.

The soldiers -- from CFB Shilo -- were expected to finish their work at Van Camp's property Sunday evening.

"We're going to be here helping Keven, make sure we've got him safe and secure for anything he needs us for. And once we're done here, we'll move on to another property," said Sgt. Ian Tait as Bobcats whirled around, delivering fresh sand to be bagged and whisking away completed sandbags to the dike.

Maj. Mike Legace said the troops are trying to fill 125,000 sandbags a day to protect 350 homes.

Van Camp said he was advised to build the dike 0.6 metres higher than 2011 flood levels -- an indication of the seriousness of this year's event.

His property was among the 200 homes along the Assiniboine River and 150 properties south of the Hoop and Holler bend, a twist in Highway 331 southeast of Portage la Prairie, that are being quickly protected against the looming rain-induced flood.

Just as the Assiniboine River crested in Brandon, at slightly lower levels than in 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was getting a bird's-eye view of the flood-ravaged area.

Harper arrived in Brandon around noon Sunday and took a 20-minute helicopter tour of southwestern Manitoba, along with Premier Greg Selinger and local MPs, to see the extent of the washed-out roads and waterlogged farmland.

"Obviously, we are here to express our solidarity with people, as I know everybody is very concerned about the situation," Harper said after he attended a briefing at Brandon City Hall. "Many have been affected."

The first crest from the torrent of floodwater appears to have hit Brandon, provincial flood official Steve Topping told a news conference Sunday. The crest is below the devastating 2011 flood level, although levels farther downstream are still forecast to be higher than 2011.

A second crest is expected to hit Brandon July 17 and 18, but Topping said it will be much lower than the current crest.

"I've been talking with Premier Selinger, also (Saskatchewan) Premier (Brad) Wall, the last week about the developments, and I just want to assure everybody that all levels of government are working together very hard," Harper said. "I want to thank all the workers here in both provinces who have been doing good work, also our military who are assisting with the situation in Portage la Prairie, where we expect the greatest challenges."

Harper later visited Brandon's emergency operations centre, along with Selinger and several MPs and MLAs.

Harper didn't promise any financial help over and above the disaster assistance Ottawa already provides during an emergency.

"I want to assure everybody that all levels of government are working together very hard," he said. "There will be disaster assistance in this case as there always is according to the federal law. We'll keep on top of this until we get the crest and get through it all."

Selinger praised Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst and the city's emergency measures team for the work they are doing to protect Brandon.

"Three years ago when we stood here, we saw super sandbags 15 feet high above our head with water piled up behind it and leaks coming out of them," Selinger said. "This year, when we got back to 18th Street we saw permanent dikes that were filled in, safe, secure and doing the job effectively. So I want to commend the local leadership for doing all the work necessary to put the right infrastructure in place."

Selinger thanked Harper for deploying the military so quickly and said there are 500 soldiers on the ground right now helping in the flood fight.

But he said there are some "very stressed communities" in southwestern Manitoba where "50 per cent of the land was covered by water."

"As that water abates, we're going to be in there working closely with them to put the infrastructure back in place and get people moving again," Selinger said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

-- with files from the Brandon Sun and The Canadian Press

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Updated on Monday, July 7, 2014 at 7:02 AM CDT:
Replaces photo, adds videos

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