1997 Red River Flood

Jordon reminded me that it's been ten years since the 1997 Red River Flood that happened in North Dakota and Southern Manitoba.

We were living in South Winnipeg at the time, and I don't think I've lived through anything like that.

First it was preceded by the blizzard of the Century. Days of cold and snow and wind the likes of which I'd never seen in my lifetime, let alone in April! The Saturday of the great blizzard I got wrapped up in my warmest clothing and ventured out to get some supplies. I nearly got lost crossing a parking lot to get into Safeway. I returned home as quickly as I dared and cancelled church for the next day. It took us days to get out from under that one.

But then the sun came out, and the snow began to melt, fast.

A couple of weeks later we had been hearing of some regional flooding down near Grand Forks, but most Winnipegers seemed to take it in stride, mostly because we had the Red River Floodway to handle the excess of water which came through each year.

But I remember the day things changed. I think it was on a Friday evening that the news was reporting that Grand Forks was in big trouble. They showed the video feeds from that town and how absolutely devastating it looked. The downtown was full of water, homes were under water, it was visually sobering.

The next morning I was at a men's breakfast and people in the cafe were talking with fear in their words. They had seen what had happened to Grand Forks, and all that water was headed straight to Winnipeg. There was a much more subdued tone to their words now.

The city began to shut down the south end of the city. As the water levels grew, roads were closed. Some big dump trucks full of sand dropped loads of sand and bags on our parking lot and I or Lauralea and the older kids would go out and make sandbags night and day.

Each day the pressure grew because the water was rising and it was moving Northward with amazing speed.

The call came from some of our friends living just south of Winnipeg in St. Norbert that they needed help moving stuff. So while Lauralea stayed home with the kids, because we had received notices warning us to be ready to evacuate in a moment, I went down into that part of the city. It was bizarre.

We would go from home to home walking right into strangers homes and into their basements and help carry up their belongings to trucks and cars. And if they didn't have those, we would bring everything to the highest floor in the home, stacking their dryers and washers and everything they owned at the highest place we could stack.
And so we went all day, from home to home. Frantic people trying to save their belongings. Running and carrying and doing their best.
Rumours would shoot through a street like lightning, and the fear was visible on peoples faces.

By mid afternoon I decided to shift my own focus so I went to the edge of St. Norbert to start to help sandbagging.

Hastily formed teams of us would work on a low spot to shore it up as quickly as the water was rising it seemed. We would move from yard to yard, franticly working to build dams.

I remember walking up one street, behind which the river was growing in volume. I was dirty and tired and I came across this elderly lady who was desperate. She franticly called to me in broken English to come and help her if I could. I went out to the back yard and saw very little work done on her sandbags, and the water was already creeping up the lower layer of sandbags.

I remember quickly throwing down a few more bags then went for some help and more sandbags, which they would deliver wherever they were needed.

I got a couple of guys and we went at it hard for a while. We were able to raise her sandbags a few feet, then the call came from a neighbour who needed the help more, and off we ran.

I remember being exhausted, and dirty and tired. I remember loosing track of time. I remember the sun setting and it getting dark in those back yards and we couldn't see what we were doing.

I remember that we had to call it a night and that all we could do through the night was to pray.

I realized I was hungry right about then. No lunch or supper, and it was late. A Salvation Army cook van pulled up on the middle of the road and called people to get something to eat. I never though I would be served from such a van, in fact I thought it was for those who lived in those homes we were evacuating. But they called me and said no way, I was eating with them tonight too. I don't think chilli ever tasted so good.

By the time I got home that night, Peter Mansbridge and The National were reporting from downtown Winnipeg at the forks. I remember watching that.

The days pretty much continued like that. I remember lots of praying, lots of hard work, and afterwards lots of cleaning up to do.
There were many more stories from that time that I recall, but maybe I'll save them for the 20th anniversary.


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