WAYWAYSEECAPPO FIRST NATION — The province says it’s only a matter of time before a crumbling embankment fails, forcing a flash flood through a valley at Waywayseecappo First Nation and then into Birdtail Creek.
Flood waters are expected to threaten several Waywayseecappo homes, bridges, Highway 45 as well as other local infrastructure. To help delay the embankment’s failure, provincial officials were scrambling Monday to get the necessary resources to the First Nation of roughly 1,500 people.
During his tour of the area on Monday afternoon, Premier Greg Selinger said trucks equipped to carry super sand bags couldn’t reach the area fast enough, so they were bringing some in from Brandon and Portage la Prairie to help protect the community’s homes and the local water treatment centre.
He added that Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation were also arranging to have pump trucks brought into the area to give the embankment some relief.
"We’re going to start pumping water out to relieve some of the pressure off the embankment," Selinger said.
Even with efforts to take pressure off the embankment, engineers have predicted it’s at a "very high risk of failure," Selinger said.
"We’ve seen some partial failures already, so every minute we get of extra time lets us do a little more preparations," he said. "We have to move on protecting the community as rapidly as possible."
Once the embankment gives way, the province says the water will reach Wayway in one to four hours, Birtle in nine to 12 hours and Birdtail Sioux First Nation in 12 to 15 hours.
Standing at the top of the embankment overlooking Wayway, Selinger was able to see firsthand the spots where it’s beginning to fail.
The lake behind the embankment is now close to 100 feet deep, and by Monday was covering twice the area it did on Saturday. As of late Monday afternoon, the water was approximately 300 metres wide and backed up about one kilometre, an official on site told the Sun.
The embankment, which was originally built for the railway, is now part of the Trans-Canada Trail. Normally, a culvert underneath allows a small creek to pass through, but a mixture of ice, dirt and mud are plugging it, adding even more pressure to the embankment.
Before his visit to Wayway, Selinger also got his shoes dirty in Birtle, where crews started working over the weekend to protect low-lying homes and the town’s water treatment centre along Birdtail Creek.
"We came out to see all the work being done by volunteers and they’ve prepared the community very well for the possibility of a lot of water coming," Selinger said. "Things look well in hand here, but we have to be very careful because things can change rapidly if there’s a sudden release of water it could be very problematic for the community."
By late Sunday, crews from the province’s Emergency Measures Organization, MIT and local community members and volunteers helped set up dikes and Tiger Dams to surround and protect the 18 homes evacuated, as well as an additional two homes in the rural municipality.
"I’m quite proud of the community and I want to especially thank the folks that have evacuated their houses so that we can be prepared for the worst case scenario," said Birtle Mayor Dwight Stewart, adding the water level along Birdtail Creek had gone down about a foot as of Monday morning.
Dwight said the town’s 39 evacuees have filled up their local hotel and others have chosen to stay with family and friends.
RM of Birtle Reeve Roger Wilson said they are now "waiting to see when and how much water’s coming" once the embankment fails.
"We’ve done everything we can reasonably and now it’s a bit of waiting game," Wilson said. "It’s amazing how many people and resources we can pull together to get things done quickly."
In terms of disaster relief, Steward said they are still tallying the costs involved with having local crews on the job over the weekend.
Selinger said disaster relief from the province will be determined once there’s a final account of damage to the community.