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Governments look to permanent flood protection measures

Residents in Manitoba are bracing for the worst, as the threat of flooding grows by the day.

The province’s flood forecast says the Red River, which has its headwaters south of the US border, has only just crested at Fargo, North Dakota.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger says while his province is well prepared, he cautions there are surprises every year there is severe flooding.

This weekend dozens of residents were evacuated in St. Andrews, Man., 30 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. Tempers flared on Monday as residents accused the local officials of not taking protective action soon enough.

The Manitoba government has already taken a number of measures to lessen the destruction of this year’s floods – but questions remain whether these measures are working, and if they will help prevent damage in the future.

Flood protection measures taken by the Manitoba government

The 1997 Red River flood was known as the Flood of the Century, and saw 28,000 residents evacuated. The flood caused over $500-million in damages and spurred new initiatives for flood protection in the province.

A report conducted after the 1997 flood prompted the Manitoba government to continually widen the Red River Floodway since 2004.

The city of Winnipeg spent $665-million for a diversion canal to steer the north-flowing Red River around the city of nearly 650,000 people.

This year, the province unveiled three Amphibex ice-smashing machines. The vehicles, which each weigh 24 tonnes and resemble floating excavators, break up river ice in an effort to prevent ice jams.

Selinger said on the weekend that advance work by the Amphibex machines has paid big dividends in reducing flood risk.

In addition to the icebreakers, Manitoba has committed $21-million for the purchase of new provincial flood equipment and technology for 2011, including millions of sandbags and kilometres of barriers.

Following the St. Andrews evacuations, Selinger says permanent dikes will be built along the Red River, starting as early as spring 2012.

The Manitoba government also announced it has set aside $740,000 to conduct studies on the feasibility of permanent dikes in 11 municipalities.

Following the 2009 floods, Manitoba gave clearance for municipalities to enforce mandatory buyouts of homes in high risk areas. Since then, over 40 homes have been evacuated and bought out.

But some critics say 40 homes is just a drop in the bucket compared to the number of homes that are in flood-prone areas. And the $21-million committed to flood protection this year is for temporary measures. Residents and governments alike are starting to wonder about permanent flood protection measures.

Permanent flood protection

For examples of successful long-term solutions to floodwaters that will continue to spill over the banks of the Red River, Manitobans may want to look to the US Midwest.

Following two near-disastrous flood seasons in 2009 and 2010, the city of Fargo launched an aggressive flood protection program.

The city bought out 75 houses in flood-prone areas, making room for permanent levees and reducing the sandbagging burden from 3.5 million bags in 2009 to 1.7 million bags in 2011.

To help pay for the measures, residents passed a half-cent tax in 2009 dedicated to flood protection projects. The tax generated $10-million in the first year.

Calling on thousands of residents to sandbag around homes is a sometimes necessary protection measure, but experts say that voluntary home buyouts is the cheapest way to fight floods in high risk areas.

Several Midwest cities in the United States have sought out long-term solutions for flood protection. In Hannibal, Missouri, 116 homes were bought out after a major flood in 1993. A flood in 2008 washed harmlessly over soccer fields and open spaces.

In Arnold, near St. Louis, the 1993 flood along the Meramec River caused $1.6-million in damage. After 322 homes were bought out, 2008’s flood caused just $12,000 in damage.

With files from the Canadian Press and the Associated Press

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