As the crest of the swollen Red River crept closer to Canada, authorities on Wednesday ordered the evacuation of all 17,000 residents of towns between the U.S. border and Winnipeg.
“There’s no panic, but we need an orderly evacuation,” said Larry Whitney, a provincial official.
Authorities hope dikes around the river valley towns will save them from severe damage, but they ordered the evacuation because the towns will likely be cut off for several weeks by lakes of contaminated floodwater.
Towns closest to the U.S. border - Emerson and Dominion City - were largely deserted by Tuesday evening. Residents pulled out of St. Jean Baptiste on Wednesday, and those in towns farther downstream were told to leave by Friday, when the crest is expected to cross the border.
Thousands of evacuees will arrive in Winnipeg, where they will be housed in hotels and school dormitories.
The Red River inundated Grand Forks, N.D., before cresting Tuesday at 54 feet, 26 feet above flood stage. About 45,000 people were forced to evacuate the city.
Winnipeg, a city of 660,000, is expected to be largely spared from flooding, thanks to a huge diversion channel completed in 1965. But residents of several hundred Winnipeg homes along the riverbank have been told they likely will be forced out by floodwaters contaminated with human sewage, household and industrial chemicals, and farm runoff. Bloated bodies of cattle already have been spotted floating through Emerson.
Motorboats, moving vans and earth movers were in high gear across the Red River Valley on Wednesday as thousands of Manitoba residents fought the rising waters.
At one farm near St. Adolphe, just south of Winnipeg, a small herd of bison with water lapping at their hooves stood placidly as a backhoe moved tons of sloppy mud.
“We’re building a mountain for them to stand on because otherwise they will drown,” Lori Neufeld said of her family’s herd of eight bison, some of which are ready to calve.
“We couldn’t let them drown. We would have to shoot them and that would be terrible.”
Manitoba’s worst flood of this century happened in 1950, submerging large sections of Winnipeg and forming a lake of 700 square miles. Experts say this year’s flood will create an even bigger lake, but they are hopeful that Winnipeg will avoid serious damage.
Floodwater is projected to hit the city’s outskirts at a rate of about 128,000 cubic feet per second. About 45 percent of the volume will be pushed into the diversion channel, while the rest will enter the city, increasing the height of the river an estimated 23 feet.
Help has been pouring into Manitoba from other parts of Canada and from the United States. The Canadian military airlifted 1.5 million sandbags from Alberta, and city officials in Fargo, N.D., which was hit by the flood last week, said they were sending 75,000 unused sandbags.