A massive blizzard that hit Manitoba 25 years ago on Tuesday started a chain of events that led to the “flood of the century.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime event that anyone who was in the province in 1997 remembers.
The relentless storm shut down roads and highways, forcing drivers to abandon their cars. It shut down schools, caused Hydro lines to snap, and grounded planes, leaving travellers stranded at Winnipeg’s airport.
For then-Winnipeg mayor Susan Thompson, part of the challenge when the storm hit was trying to find a way back to Winnipeg from Monterrey, Mexico, where she was attending a mid-continent trade conference with civic leaders from three countries.
Thompson told 680 CJOB’s Connecting Winnipeg that she had her hands full with the logistics of the situation after she started to get phone call after phone call about the unfolding weather event back home.
“We went from Monterrey, Mexico into Houston with Northwest Airlines,” Thompson said.
“I’m at the ticket counter, and the woman is saying to me, ‘Well, we can get you into Minneapolis, but the airport in Winnipeg is closed and we can’t get you there.'”
“I said, ‘I don’t think you understand. I’m the mayor of Winnipeg.’ She looked at me and said, ‘I don’t care who you are, we can’t get you into Winnipeg. The airport is closed’.”
Thompson eventually made her way back to Manitoba via Toronto and then Hamilton, where the challenges really began.
She said mayors from communities along the Red River like Fargo, Grand Forks, Pembina and Emerson had been working together since the previous December on flood predictions, but nothing could have prepared them for the ‘unprecedented’ scenario to come.
“We knew we were in for a big flood, but when that blizzard happened, then it was a big shift — this was going to be a historic flood,” Thompson said.
“(Figuring out) how to get things cleared as quickly as possible was monumental. In tandem with that, was immediately going over how many sandbags are we going to need? How much higher are the dikes going to have to be? How are we going to…do a shift in our communications plan? What other preparations are we going to need?
“It was asking all the questions, checking all the forecasting…it was just a whole series of critical factors, and the only way to describe it was that every hour was critical.”
Former Environment Canada meteorologist Rob Paola told 680 CJOB’s The Start the storm was a record-setting one for the region.
“It’s right up there,” Paola said. “In terms of actual blizzard conditions, which is defined as visibility of a quarter-mile or less. It actually set a record as the longest-duration blizzard on record in Winnipeg since records began in 1955.
“It was over 23 consecutive hours of blizzard conditions from the Saturday afternoon of the 5th, right until the evening of April 6.”
Paola said Manitobans had to deal with winds gusting up to 80 km/h during the storm, as well as unseasonable temperatures, with the windchill dropping below -25 C at times.
“It had to be the most miserable April weekend Winnipeg has ever seen,” he said.
“It brought a tremendous amount of precipitation — not only snow, but ice pellets — and the total precipitation amount that fell over Winnipeg and the Red River Valley was over 60 millimetres. Over two inches of liquid precipitation fell into the Red River Valley at just the worst possible time, leading to the catastrophic flood of the century.”
While the flood caused millions of dollars in damage and forced tens of thousands of Manitobans to evacuate their homes, as the Red’s waters continued to rise, former mayor Thompson says there’s a positive legacy to the devastating event — the way the community banded together to help those in need.
“Everybody pulled together. High school students had never even filled a 40 lb. sandbag, and here they were out here helping…Who didn’t help?
“It was between all the Manitobans and all the Winnipeggers.”