My daughter is a big fan of television late night comedy guy, Seth Myers. She was telling me about Seth’s monologue related to Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo who was quite eager to let people know there may actually be a benefit to the melting ice caps. Extinction of polar bears aside, because of these steady ice cap reductions, the melting would potentially cut down the travel days to get from Asia to the west by as much as 20 days and thus open the door to new possibilities of discovery. And Seth’s response at this was, naturally, one of absolute ridicule and shock. Does Mr. Pompeo think we’ll all hop on ships looking for new spices in some cold foreign country? What planet did this man come from?
So although there remains disagreement as to whether climate change exists or not or if this is just a natural cycle, it would seem to me that any logical thinking person has to agree that no matter what it is it might be good if we all agree that something is different and let’s prepare for this new normal.
Back in 1979, I was living in Winnipeg working for the federal counterpart of the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO). Emergency Planning Canada, as it was called back then, was the lead federal entity in the event of an emergency affecting the province. An interesting place to work, our office was involved in Skylab, the eruption of Mount St Helens, annual forest fires, infestations and flooding among other things.
Generally Manitoba would deal with flooding at some level most every year. But in 1979, we were plunged into the worst flooding ever experienced in that province since the great flood of 1950, a flood that devastated the city of Winnipeg resulting in the largest evacuation of population in Canadian history. In that case, eight dykes gave way resulting in 600 square miles of towns and the city being flooded and 100,000 people being temporarily relocated from their homes. And in 1979, all indicators pointed to a reoccurrence. But not due to burst dykes but due to rising waters of the Red River.
But the devastation didn’t occur. The flooding did, but not the devastation. And the reason it didn’t is because following that 1950 fiasco, the provincial and federal governments recognized that something previously seen as a ‘local issue’, I.e. flooding of an area, was actually something that should be dealt with cohesively by all three levels of government. Never before had government worked together in such a manner. Manitoba’s premier at the time, Duff Roblin, pushed the tri-governments to build a floodway three quarters of the way around the city. The gates would open when flooding appeared imminent. It would require more soil removal than the Suez Canal. Mr. Roblin was mocked. Newspapers had a field day making fun of his idea but he stuck firm to his convictions and finally in 1968 the Winnipeg Floodway was completed. ‘Duff’s Ditch’ it was called. Rarely was it spoken of in a positive way. More often than not, the amount of money it cost was the main topic. Each year there was no need for opening the floodgates only gave the nay-sayers more ammo for their stories.
Then in 1979 the Red River flowing from the States with an unusual amount of water-logged snow, frozen ground and a quick thaw all came together for a perfect storm of flooding. The water rushed towards the city - more than the 1950’s levels - the floodgates were opened and the city was saved! Duff’s Ditch had redeemed itself! The city honoured him. I’m thankful he lived to be recognized for his forward thinking.
The Floodway was not the only preventative measure taken as a result of the 1950 experience. Seven towns in the flood prone areas were permanently ring-dyked, that is large hills of earth were piled completely around each of the towns leaving only a road into the town and a road out of the town. When flooding appeared imminent, the entrance and exit to each town would be filled in, thus, ensuring the safety of the encircled seven towns. Following the ‘79 flooding, governments worked together resulting in promulgation of the Moving, Raising or Dyking Program (MRDP) to assist those homes outside the ring dyked towns and the city. Again, through cost-sharing the federal and provincial governments (and homeowners) worked together to ensure a house was moved to higher ground, to leave a house where it was but raise it higher, or to put a permanent dyke around a home. As well, certain areas of the province were deemed to be flood-prone and if someone were to build there, they would not be entitled to any sort of financial coverage.
I was fortunate to be a helicopter passenger involved with reconnaissance at some ring -dyked towns. I was also, with a ring-dyked town mayor and a CBC photographer, able to drive down the Trans Canada Highway in a motor boat to see unprotected homes surrounded by water - so much water sandbags were useless. My heart truly went out to the inhabitants of these homes. And here we are 40 years later still struggling with ways to deal with this sort of thing. Perhaps we should listen to Manitoba, bite the proverbial monetary bullet and take some tangible action to protect our citizens.
And to make Mike Pompeo happy, their lives will be spiced up.
Sheila Graham is a member of the Amherst News Community Editorial Panel.