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Flood-weary Manitobans leave homes along Red River before next deluge

WINNIPEG -- Bill Stertz is sure about one thing for the coming spring: unlike last April, he will not have to stand on the roof of his house, surrounded by rising floodwater, waiting to be rescued by boat.

WINNIPEG -- Bill Stertz is sure about one thing for the coming spring: unlike last April, he will not have to stand on the roof of his house, surrounded by rising floodwater, waiting to be rescued by boat.

Stertz, 47, is one of many residents who have packed up and left the flood-prone stretch of the Red River north of Winnipeg. The region was particularly hard hit last spring as ice jams caused sudden, widespread flooding. Some homes were smashed by massive chunks of floating ice.

With the area turning into a vast lake, rescue crews went from home to home in inflatable boats, bringing Stertz and others to safety.

It was the final straw for municipal leaders in the area, who have spent the ensuing months trying to coax and, in some cases, force people to move. They are still working to try to get people out before the snow melts and the threat of flooding resumes this spring.

Stertz did not need much convincing.

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"It was the smart thing to do, anyways," Stertz said from his new home in Garson, Man., 19 miles east of his old house and well away from the tempestuous Red River.

"The property values out there have plummeted, eh? And the thing that made most sense was to get the heck out of there while we could."

With funding from the Manitoba government, the Rural Municipality of St. Andrews offered Stertz the pre-flood assessed value of his home. The municipality has made the offers voluntary and has had no shortage of takers. The fact that people are being offered the pre-flood value for their properties has created a lot of interest.

"We've had more people come forward than the dollars I've been able to get from the province to buy out," said Don Forfar, the municipality's reeve.

The handful of homes most at risk have been emptied, but some residents whose places rarely flood would also like a buyout, Forfar said.

Other residents don't want to leave.

Myrna and Ken Fey have been in their home, which sits near Ken's family homestead, for decades. They had 3.3 feet of water in their basement last spring, but usually avoid flooding because they are on somewhat higher ground. Now, they are watching their neighbors pack up and leave.

"A couple of houses have been demolished already. It's like there's nothing ever been there," Myrna Fey said. "We're staying put. We're too old to start over again, and we're not town people."

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The retired couple only recently finished cleaning up from last spring's flood, which caused more than $40 million in damage provincewide. They've had to clean furniture and other goods and dry out the basement.

Across the river in St. Clements, Man., the buyouts have been mandatory for 18 riverfront homeowners. Municipal leaders said they want to stop sending rescue crews into dangerous floodwaters every time Mother Nature decides to swamp the region.

"We're not prepared to even consider risking people's lives for the sake of other people's lifestyles anymore," Mayor Steve Strang said.

The mandatory buyouts have gone over well in all but one case, Strang said.

"It's a seasonal resident who has a mobile home that has been flooded a couple of times. He has just refused to talk to us at all."

The municipality is also changing building code bylaws to ensure that new homes are better able to withstand flooding. One of the homes flooded last spring had a walkout basement with a doorway below ground level, facing the river's edge. The building was still being finished when the water rushed in.

The Manitoba government has also had to coax people off land it controls in the area. About 40 cottage owners on Crown land have been told their land leases are being terminated. They've been offered pre-flood market value for their buildings.

Getting people off the most flood-prone land is one thing. But the entire Red River Valley is a flood plain, so the province and municipalities are also focusing on protecting the region by improving drainage ditches and other measures.

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Drastic measures were taken a decade ago south of Winnipeg. Earth dikes were enlarged and managed to keep towns such as Morris and St. Jean Baptiste, Man., bone-dry last spring while the surrounding area became a lake 10 miles wide. Farmers who live outside the dikes used boats to get to and from town to pick up supplies.

The river floods to some extent almost every year, usually swamping some farmland and a few country roads. In bad years, a combination of fast-melting snow, heavy rain and stubborn ice jams can create a disaster, forcing some communities to evacuate or close off highways. Last spring was one of the worst floods on record.

It's too early to predict what 2010 holds in store, but weeks of dry, warmer-than-normal fall weather have led to some optimism.

"If you talked to me (in October), we were panicking because there was more water in the ground, more water on the ground, and more water in the river than there was 12 months ago," Forfar said.

"But we've had an unbelievable fall, and it's really helped us out."

For those who have left the region, flooding is a distant memory. They're glad to be on drier land, but admit to missing the seclusion of the sprawling rural area.

"The biggest thing I miss is the privacy and all the wildlife that is out there," Stertz said.

"I've moved to a community where I have neighbors and everything else. It's a different lifestyle, for sure."

Related Topics: RED RIVER
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