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Brandon Sun - PRINT EDITION

'It was a crazy time'

In this May 17, 2011, file photo, motorists on 18th Street in Brandon pass a wall of sandbags holding back the flood waters from the Assiniboine River.

THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

In this May 17, 2011, file photo, motorists on 18th Street in Brandon pass a wall of sandbags holding back the flood waters from the Assiniboine River.

At this time one year ago, the Assiniboine River was about to peak at just over 1,182 feet. The City of Brandon was in a state of emergency, fighting what was a historic one-in-300 year flood.

In this May 11, 2011, photo, Dave Barnes checks the water pumps at his garage at his flooded Brandon property as the swollen Assiniboine River threatens his home.

Enlarge Image

In this May 11, 2011, photo, Dave Barnes checks the water pumps at his garage at his flooded Brandon property as the swollen Assiniboine River threatens his home. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

James McCormick and his partner Kristen Gervais, who live on 23rd Street North, at their home on Friday. They were among those who were given a mandatory evacuation order in May 2011 due to rising river levels.

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James McCormick and his partner Kristen Gervais, who live on 23rd Street North, at their home on Friday. They were among those who were given a mandatory evacuation order in May 2011 due to rising river levels. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN)

In this May 12, 2011, photo, the Assiniboine River overflows its banks in Brandon.

Enlarge Image

In this May 12, 2011, photo, the Assiniboine River overflows its banks in Brandon. (MIKE DEAL/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

In this May 9, 2011, photo, volunteers sandbag on the southern dike of the Assiniboine River in Brandon.

Enlarge Image

In this May 9, 2011, photo, volunteers sandbag on the southern dike of the Assiniboine River in Brandon. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

More than 1,400 people had been evacuated from their homes, the Corral Centre and many other businesses were forced to close their doors and super sandbags towered along 18th Street, holding back a wall of water 7.5 feet deep.

"The whole city was paralyzed by the flood," said Bernie Whetter, who was evacuated from both his home and business. "Everybody just kind of went on hold, and I think it affected all of us in a way, whether you had direct impact or secondary."

Whetter owns The Green Spot, which was given a mandatory evacuation order on May 12, 2011.

"It was pretty traumatic," Whetter said. "But you know, we didn’t have any options and we just made the best with what we had to do."

The Green Spot opened a temporary location in the West End, but it was a stressful, uncertain time.

"If the dike had let go, then this entire (Rosser Avenue East) location would have been gone," Whetter said. "When we think about it now, we’re saying we were pretty fortunate."

There is a lot of reminiscing going on in the Wheat City, recalling the events that seem almost surreal now.

"It was a crazy time, but it was a time that brought our community together so powerfully," said Dave Barnes, whose East End home was surrounded by water.

Sandbag dikes were put up around Barnes’ home and shed, and he had to use a canoe to navigate through his property.

"It was an island home for like three weeks," he said.

Barnes remembers feeling very stressed, but was grateful for the amount of support he received from friends. People volunteered to man the pumps all night.

"It just made me realize that life is beautiful and people are wonderful, and we have a great, great community," he said. "It was a powerful time."

James McCormick and his family were one of the families given a mandatory evacuation order from the city.

"I can remember the day. It was really cloudy," said McCormick, who lives on 23rd Street North. "We had to take a quick run up and see the river. I never had been through anything like that before."

McCormick stayed at the Canad Inns, and along with the rest of the evacuees, was wondering if his home would escape unscathed.

"We were always reassured that the water hadn’t gotten that far yet," he said. "But we always kind of thought it could seep through the ground and cause a flood."

McCormick said the people at the evacuation centre made a challenging time more bearable.

"Everyone was very happy to see you … It was very comforting, there was no room for fear," McCormick said.

Down on Ninth Street, Brandon City Hall was the centre of emergency operations. Mayor Shari Decter Hirst and Emergency Co-ordinator Brian Kayes held daily media briefings.

Decter Hirst recalls sleeping on the couch in her office on a few occasions.

"I was so sure that if I went home there would be a breach in the dike," Decter Hirst said. "And so that if I stayed here, that would mean that everything would be fine until the morning. When the sun came up, it always seemed like anything could be accomplished."

Decter Hirst still gets tears in her eyes when she remembers the night the evacuation order was lifted.

"Walking into hotel lobby after hotel lobby, because people would wait in the lobby for us to get there … and people could see the grin on my face before I even got out of the car and knew what I was coming to tell them," she said.

Evacuees were able to start returning to their homes on May 28, 2011.

It was "amazing and inspiring" to see how the community pulled together, Decter Hirst said.

"It didn’t matter whether you were a volunteer, whether you were a city worker, whether you were the mayor … we were all running on fumes," she said. "We were emotionally red-lined, we were physically working around the clock, we weren’t eating properly … I know how hard our emergency staff worked and how incredibly committed the volunteers …. were."

Decter Hirst credits the Brandon Emergency Support Team (BEST) for its hours of pre-planning to be able to adapt so quickly to the historic water levels.

"While it was trial by flood, it tested our emergency response in a way we never anticipated," she said. "The other reason why Brandon was so successful is that because of the work that BEST has done to build that culture of preparedness. People knew they had a responsibility themselves. They knew the city would be there, but they knew … that they had a role to play as well, and so we all worked as a team."

» jaustin@brandonsun.com

Flood timeline

• Dec. 21, 2010: The City of Brandon begins preparations for a major flooding event expected in spring of 2011. By this time, the region has already received above average snowfall with some areas at a soil moisture level as much as 160 per cent higher than normal.

• Jan. 25, 2011: Provincial flood projections show the Assiniboine River has a one-in-10 chance for a 1976-level flood.

• Feb. 2: The City of Brandon announces it will launch a full-scale pre-emptive attack against flood waters in the spring. In response to provincial flood forecasts that suggest there’s a one-in-10 chance that the Assiniboine River could flood at least one foot above one-in-100-year levels, the city begins preparations to build up five kilometres of its permanent diking system to two feet above that level.

• March: The province contributes $781,000 towards the $1.86-million buildup of the city’s permanent dike system to prepare for what flood forecasters believe could be Assiniboine River levels of at least 0.6 metres (one foot) above one-in-100-year water levels.

• March 16: Super sandbags begin going up at 18th Street.

• April 12: A State of Local Emergency is declared.

• April 16: Grand Valley Road is closed at 18th Street.

• May 9: Mandatory evacuation of homes south of the river is ordered, from Fourth Street North to 26th Street North. Brandon’s Community Sportsplex closes.

• May 10: About 70 reserve force soldiers from Saskatchewan arrive in Brandon. About 40 personnel from the Brandon-based 26th Field Regiment have already been working flood duty. So far, they’ve been working under the direction of the province, helping to sandbag and reinforce the dikes along 18th Street North and First Street North.

• May 11: Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits Brandon.

• May 12: Corral Centre is evacuated. Maximum speed limit of 30 km per hour is imposed along 18th Street from Parker Boulevard to Cumberland Avenue.

• May 13: 30,000 sandbags are delivered to Brandon. The call for volunteers goes out to strengthen and raise dikes.

• May 14: Hay bales are installed against the dikes to protect them from debris already in the Assiniboine River, and provide extra protection for dikes along 18th Street; First Street remains closed to all traffic as work continues to reopen the major artery

• May 15: River peaks at 1,182.89 feet (360.54 metres), measured at First Street. The highest level since records have been kept. Normal winter river level is 1,165 (355.09 m) to 1,170 feet (356.62 m) above sea level.

• May 19: River level drops, but is still over the 1-in-100 year levels.

• May 24: Corral Centre reopens for business.

• May 25: The City of Brandon is promised approximately $20 million for future flood protection in a $175-million flood mitigation program announced by Premier Greg Selinger.

• May 28: Evacuees start returning to their homes.

• May 30: Brandon’s Community Sportsplex re-opens. Traffic routes, including the Eastern Access road re-open.

• July 1: Victory Parade

• July 29: The Assiniboine River has finally dropped — and stayed — below an official flood stage in Brandon.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 14, 2012

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At this time one year ago, the Assiniboine River was about to peak at just over 1,182 feet. The City of Brandon was in a state of emergency, fighting what was a historic one-in-300 year flood.

More than 1,400 people had been evacuated from their homes, the Corral Centre and many other businesses were forced to close their doors and super sandbags towered along 18th Street, holding back a wall of water 7.5 feet deep.

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At this time one year ago, the Assiniboine River was about to peak at just over 1,182 feet. The City of Brandon was in a state of emergency, fighting what was a historic one-in-300 year flood.

More than 1,400 people had been evacuated from their homes, the Corral Centre and many other businesses were forced to close their doors and super sandbags towered along 18th Street, holding back a wall of water 7.5 feet deep.

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