Learning from history

Manitobans are still here after centuries of setbacks. Aboriginal and archeological history tells us that their lifestyle was pretty much nomadic. Not too many stories of large villages and longhouses and permanent settlements. One of the reasons that Manitoba’s aboriginals moved around so much is the climate and the geography were both pretty much unpredictable. If floods didn’t come, droughts did and sometimes in the same year. If the buffalo came wandering by where they did last year, all was well and good but there was no guarantee the buffalo or caribou or anythng else would, so mankind of centuries ago had to be pretty mobile.
By 1812, a few Scottish people thought they should put down roots at the Forks at Red River. Not a really good plan as in the early 1820s, they were wiped out by a flood. By then, some had survived very cold winters, very dry summers, grasshopper plagues and a number of other annoyances. As I have said before in this space, the largest flood in recorded history left the Red River Valley covered with water. Only the hill at Stony Mountain was left sticking out of the lake.
Manitobans still have to be somewhat mobile and that fact is being proven this year as thousands of people are having to evacuate their homes, farms, livestock and possessions in the face of huge flooding. The 1950 flood spurred the building of the Red River Floodway, Duff’s Ditch, named after premier Duff Roblin whose government built it. Then followed flood control structures like the Shellmouth Dam and the Portage Diversion, two major examples of engineering. Along with that came the smaller man-made lakes like Lake Irwin at Neepawa, Lake Watohpanah at Rivers and Lake Minnewasta at Morden.
There’s a recurring theme with all these structures. They were supposed to solve a big problem and in many instances they did. The praises of these works were sung and, based on the information they had at the time, it was good to do so. But the Red River Floodway didn’t solve the problem forever as the upgrades needed a few years ago proved. The Shellmouth Dam, instead of becoming a revolving storage basin, hasn’t always worked that way. The Lake Irwin basin was supposed to take two to three years to fill up. Engineers were so confident of that, they left brush and debris in the basin thinking they’d have a summer or two to clean it up. The lake filled up in well under a year.
The recurring theme is that no matter how good the “engineered works” were, it didn’t totally solve the problem especially when conditions changed for the worse.
And that brings us to 2011. Manitobans are still having to be resilient and mobile as flood waters are surprising everyone as to volume and depth. The engineering works and data have fallen short.
When all the flood waters have passed and all the damages totalled up and hopefully everyone safe and compensated, there will need to be a time of serious reflection. We will all need to review this epic flood and figure out what must be done to avoid the problems and mistakes of this year’s disaster. 
In the meantime, we all need to hope, pray and help where we can. 

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