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Floods create legends
Mar 20, 2009

The revised update released by the province has Manitobans reflecting upon the “Flood of the Century” in 1997, which has become the new gauge to assess the impact of flooding. Prior to 1997, the measuring stick for spring -time flood disasters had been 1950, although the worst flood in Manitoba’s recorded history occurred in 1826. 

The latter flood nearly brought to an end Lord Selkirk’s experiment of settling displaced Scots and Irish along the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. If the colony had been wiped out, the history of Manitoba and Canada would have taken a different course. It is because floods have such an impact that watery deluges and fantastical weather have always moved people to invent or put down in writing some of the great tales and myths of history. It’s the danger of a flood which instills both fear and awe. Even 1997’s Flood of the Century has  inspired its own mythology. It’s not so much the ordinary aspects of flooding that motivates people to tell tales of their experiences, but the uniqueness of specific occurrances they witness or experience.

For example, in the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the title character and king of Kish, meets Utnapishtim and his wife of the city of Shurruppak, the survivors of a massive flood. The flood story told by Utnapishtim to Gilgamesh (written about 2500 BC) predates and is commonly regarded as the basis of the story of Noah and the Great Flood, which was adapted from the original Sumerian version into a morality lesson. This shouldn’t be too surprising since all civilizations throughout the ancient Near East had their own versions of the flood story.

In Utnapishtim’s story, the gods were moved “to inflict the flood” against mankind because of their constant and irritating babbling. The god Ea wanted some remnant of humanity to survive and selected Utnapishtim and his wife, along with his “kith and kin” and those who had helped him, as well as “all the beasts and animals of the field,” to ride out the coming deluge in an ark. When the flood came, it lasted for seven days and “humans were once more clay.”

After Utnapishtim’s boat ran aground on Mt. Nishar, he let loose a dove which was unable to find land and returned. Then, he let loose a raven which found land and did not return which alerted Utnapishtim to the receding of the floodwaters. When Enlil raged that some of mankind had survived, Ea said to him that all should not be killed for one offense and the punishment did not fit the so-called offense. At this, the chief god’s rage subsided and to atone for the flood granted Utnapishtim and his wife immortality, sending them to dwell where “all the rivers come together.”

There is no archaeological evidence of one great flood enveloping the world, but excavations at the Sumerian city of Ur show the occurrence of periodic ancient floods, the memory of which probably were turned into tales that evolved into the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Remembrance of 1997 and how Mother Nature unleashed her wrath on Ste. Agathe will undoubtedly spawn great tales similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh, especially due to the twist of fate involved in the disaster.

Townsfolk struggled to protect homes and property but they were thrown a curve ball. High winds whipped the floodwaters into a frenzy and the water poured overland toward Hwy 75. When the flood overcame the town, it didn’t arrive from the east, but from the west. The highway proved to be an ineffectual barrier and just after midnight waves, comparable to those seen during a nor’wester on Lake Winnipeg, raged against homes and buildings in the community.

No one is expecting a reoccurrence of  1997’s wrath, but the update from the province warns that even favourable weather cannot prevent the Red from overflowing its banks in some areas.

“With average temperature and precipitation from now on, a 1979-magnitude flood on the Manitoba portion of the Red River is likely,” according to the flood forecast. “The 1979 flood was very similar in magnitude to 1950, ranging from 0.3 metres (a foot) below to 1.22 metres (four feet) below 1997 peaks at Emerson and St. Adolphe respectively.”

The problem for the Manitoba portion of the Red River Valley isn’t local snow cover, but the effects of a March 10 blizzard south of the border compounding existing high soil moisture conditions and above-normal snowfall prior to the blizzard.

There is no real panic this time around as lessons were learned from the 1997and flood protection in the province has been greatly enhanced. Major flood control works such as the Red River Floodway, Portage Diversion and Shellmouth Reservoir will be in operation to reduce the river flows and levels in Winnipeg, and ring dikes at valley towns will be closed at the appropriate time. The province said all towns and individual homes in the Red River floodplain are now protected to 1997 levels plus 0.6 (two feet), so structural damage to buildings should be minimal.

But there is likely to be extensive damage to agricultural land as well as over-topping of municipal and provincial roads.

The problem for Selkirk has always been ice jams causing flooding, but even this has been mitigated by two Amphibex ice-breaking machines, including a newly-acquired more powerful machine valued at $1.2 million.

In Winnipeg, the city has announced it is gearing up for a water level reaching 22.2 feet James (James Avenue Datum). At James Avenue, this is 1.8 feet higher than the 2006 level and 2.3 feet lower than the flood level in 1997.

The city predicts the flood could require from 50,000 to 760,000 sandbags. If it’s a 22.2-foot event, 33 flood pumping stations will be activated, 223 flood control gates will be operational, and 41 pumping stations will be set up. Sandbagging for 292 homes will require 760,000 sandbags.

“At this point,” said Barry McBride, director of the city’s water and waste department, “the James level of 22.2 provides a worst-case scenario. We will continue to monitor the situation closely. As the spring event gets closer, properties at risk of flooding will be identified and we will notify those in locations where sandbag dikes are required.”

Images of the 1997 deluge have been indelibly etched into the minds of people on both sides of the border, especially the angry waves within Ste. Agathe and the fires roaring along water-clogged streets in Grand Forks, which are the stuff of creating legends in years to come.