Municipal officials, past and present, had a chance to reminisce about Manitoba's Flood of Century Wednesday night in Morris.
2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the historic spring flood that hit the Red River Valley back in 1997 and initiated an evacuation of whole communities south of Winnipeg. It was the most severe flood on the river since 1826.
A public presentation and discussion was hosted by the Red River Basin Commission at the Morris Multiplex dealing with the theme: Treading Water. A Rural Perspective on the 1997 Red River Flood.
Three of the presenters, who were at the forefront in the battle to protect their communities, included Herm Martens, former reeve for the Rural Municipality of Morris, former mayor of Emerson Wayne Arseny, and Charlie Nelson representing the Roseau River First Nation.
For Wayne Arseny, the thing that stands out the most about that event was all the work that went into saving the town of Emerson. He feels that effort, not only benefited the community, but all of southern Manitoba.
Emerson was the first point of contact in southern Manitoba for the massive floodwaters coming down the Red River from the United States-floodwaters that had caused extensive damage to the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota and forced the evacuation of about 52,000 residents there. In an effort to avoid such a disaster in Manitoba, a massive undertaking was launched into strengthening and building up the ring dike protecting the Emerson against the river. The success of those efforts gave hope to other ring diked communities like Letellier, St. Jean and Morris further downstream.
"1997 was a bit of a wake up call for all of us to things differently and work cooperatively with the Americans, which is happening right now, and I think that's a huge success," said Arseny.
Herm Martens has vivid memories of his time as reeve for the RM of Morris during the '97' flood
"I spent 44 days where I left home before 6am every morning and came back at midnight," said Martens. "I went through the 1979 flood and there was also 1974, and then we got hit by the 1996 flood, but we had never seen something like the flood of '97'."
Martens feels the 1996 flood, which was a significant flood in itself, gave his municipal team a taste of the kind of leadership that would be needed to help their ratepayers through that disaster thefollowing year. He is also proud of the work the municipality invested in flood mitigation in the years following 1997, putting ratepayers in a better position to protect their families and property.
"When I look back on the 2009 flood, which was almost as high as '97', we were feeling a little guilty because we as a municipality weren't really doing anything compared to what we had done in 1997. We had mitigated most of the flood hot spots in the municipality, which allowed business and industry to continue despite the high water."
Dale Hoffman says the 1997 flood creates mixed emotions for him when reflecting on how the town of Morris battled the flood of the century. Hoffman, who was mayor of the community in '97', says there were some very difficult situations that municipal leaders had to deal with, some of which were created by the provincial government.
Hoffman recalls a very tense situation that occurred when the Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization issued an order for everyone in the ring diked communities to evacuate, including those volunteers who were helping with the flood fight.
"There were about 30 volunteers who were willing to stay back to protect the community. We told the government that we weren't leaving and EMO got rather persistent. I paced around until 3 a.m. wondering if I had made the right decision. From the information I was receiving, our town was not going under, and I made the decision to accept the responsibility of the lives of everyone staying behind. That is one of the first memories that comes back to haunt me. It was a tough decision, but it was the right one."
Wednesday evening's event was not only an opportunity to look back, but to reflect on the flood mitigation that has occurred over the past two decades and to look for ways to better manage floodwaters in the future.
"Here in the valley we either have too much water or we don't have enough," said Arseny. "The majority of our drinking water in this region comes from the Red River and I really think we have to start looking at water retention on the tributaries and start building reservoirs, big bodies of water that can be used recreationally, but also ensure a water supply for the future."
Hoffman agrees with a strategy to capture and hold water by building large storage areas.
"We should be looking at that. Another thought I've shared with the Red River Basin board is building a channel that runs parallel to the Red River that would take 25 per cent of the flow. Now, realistically, the reason that won't happen is because most governments are in power for four years or a litte more, and this would be a 10 to 20 year project. No government plans that far ahead, because they know they're not going to be there. That's unfortunate, because we need that kind of long term planning," he said.