COLUMN: Perry Bergson — Feb. 11, 2013

Perry
Perry Bergson
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Looking at all of this snow has me thinking about the spring of 2011 when I was still in Brandon.

And like all things in this long-winded redhead’s space, it begins with a story. But of course there’s a story before the story begins.

So let’s get started.

My house was maybe 100 yards north of the Assiniboine River as the crow flies.

Everyone knew that the water was going to be high. There was a lot of moisture in the ground already so it was going to be a high water year.

Then we got hammered with a two-day snowstorm that ratcheted up the estimates of how high the water would reach.

 

The City of Brandon had built up earth dikes on both sides of the river between 18th Street on the city’s west side to First Street on the city’s east side, a distance of about a mile. The water was gradually making its way higher and higher.

The water comes out of central Saskatchewan and is stored in the Shellmouth Reservoir near Russell, just inside the Manitoba border. Some water had been released during the winter to prepare the reservoir but, as it turned out, it wasn’t nearly enough.

The Assiniboine works its way south toward Virden before taking a hard left turn to the east near the Trans-Canada Highway.

It was easy for the folks in Brandon to gauge how much water was coming because it was being measured all along the 200 or so kilometres between the two communities.

The city put massive sandbags along First and 18th streets to keep traffic moving north and south over the area around the river. As those lines of bags grew higher and higher, the situation was clearly getting worse.

Still it seemed like everything was under control.

Which finally brings us to our story.

Mother’s Day fell on May 8 that year so my wife and I drove home to Portage la Prairie to spend the day with our mothers. It was overcast and raining.

By the time we got back to Brandon, it was after midnight.

My wife would often drop our dog Luke and I off at the intersection of Highway 1 and First Street so that we could walk the final three or four kilometres home. So the two of us began to walk in the rain south down First Street.

If you’ve been to Brandon, you know that a mile south of the Trans-Canada there is a kilometre-long hill that you head down on your way into the city. The river runs through the wide valley there, with a gentler rise to the main part of the city to the south.

As I got closer to the top of the hill, I could see massive lights below in a place where there normally weren’t any. Whatever was going on down there was big. I hurried my sniff-happy hound down the hill to see.

The road that stretches east-west on the north side of the river is called Kirkcaldy Drive. It was closed.

We walked along the sidewalk toward huge spotlights that had been set up. After a couple of blocks of houses on the river side of the road, it’s open ground all the way to 18th Street.

When I passed the last house, I could suddenly see what was going on; crews were struggling to put up an additional couple of feet of plastic aqua dikes with bales inside of them.

It was windy and the rain was coming down. The spotlights cast everything in an unnatural glow.

The hum of the generators powering the lights was mixed with guys yelling instructions. From across the street it appeared that there was a frantic immediacy to their efforts.

At the street where I turned to go home, I ran into a friend who was helping direct this desperate battle against the rising water. His words were brief and chilling.

“It will be a miracle if this holds.”

The water had come up nearly a foot that day and would soon be lapping at this new dike.

My house was about 13 feet from the top of the riverbank. The new dam was probably about six or eight feet above the riverbank.

Once the water started to spill over -- or worse, took out part of the dam -- all bets were off.

I went home and spent a few hours moving stuff off of my basement floor. The next day, some buddies came over and helped me lift the heavier stuff into higher positions.

Our neighbourhood was put on evacuation alert. Everyone on the south side of the river in the valley -- more than 1,300 people -- was evacuated and security patrolled there 24 hours a day.

Every day you woke up with the notion that you could be facing an evacuation order, or even worse, there could be water sweeping over the dike into people’s homes.

All we could do was wait for something completely out of control to either happen or not happen.

 

Tune in to this same spot next week for the completely anticlimactic end to this story in which everything turns out fine. Oh, and the Bergsons move to Prince Albert.

 

 

Organizations: Trans-Canada Highway, Prince Albert

Geographic location: Brandon, First Street, 18th Street Assiniboine River Saskatchewan Manitoba Virden Portage la Prairie Canada

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