It started with heavy rains that saturated the soil in the fall of 1996.
The rains were followed by an unusually long and cold winter, which brought four blizzards.
People in southern Manitoba were ready to greet the sun and see the brown earth when the melt finally came in late March. That's when Mother Nature curled her fingers into a fist and took another swing.
It was the start of the fourth, and biggest, of the winter’s blizzards. This is the snowstorm that changed what would have been manageable flood, to one far exceeding expectations. The storm closed every highway and school in southern Manitoba. Vehicles were stuck and abandoned, or fully buried in drifts.
Everyone knew a flood was coming. It wasn't clear yet just how bad it would be.
The river became a beast, and its shallow banks couldn't contain the torrent. The water spread across the Red River Valley. It inundated virtually everything in evacuated Grand Forks, North Dakota. In addition, a fire in downtown Grand Forks engulfed 11 buildings and 60 apartments units as firefighters struggled to reach the flames on the flooded streets.
Manitobans were glued to the eerie images of flaming buildings in a sea of muddy water. It was like a cold shower: a bracing wake-up call.
The province ordered a massive evacuation of communities in the flood path. Thousands of Manitobans were led out of their communities by the military, heading to Winnipeg, Steinbach and Selkirk — anywhere that stood a chance. Only small teams of officials — municipal leaders, military, RCMP — stayed back to monitor dikes and guard against looting or anyone who tried to return to check on property.
More than 22,000 people had been chased out of the Red River Valley, turning some 20 southern Manitoba communities into sudden ghost towns. What there was, was water. Plenty of it. It spread across the flat farmland like a shadow, when clouds swallow the sun.
"It's an eerie feeling, especially in the evening. You could hear things bouncing against the water. […] Instead of green and black for fields and roads, it was all the same colour. Everywhere. The houses and buildings that had ring dikes or sandbags would stick up like islands.“
Bob Stefaniuk, former mayor of Manitoba's rural municipality of Ritchot
As the floodwaters widened, officials feared the water would bypass the city's main defences by spilling into into the La Salle River southwest of Winnipeg, which feeds back into the Red River north of the floodway gates.
The Brunkild extension — nicknamed the Z-dike for its zigzag pattern — was constructed in a matter of days to block in the La Salle. The construction was non-stop for weeks, with flares shot into the night sky to allow work to continue. The bodies of old school buses and other junkyard cars were lined up, reinforced with hay bales, to act as a breakwater in front of the new dike and to protect it from pounding waves blown up by Prairie winds. The project was done before the floodwaters arrived — and worked perfectly.
The city began to allow residents to return home. Peoples’ home and livelihood lied at the bottom of a shallow, muddy sea. It was a very, very hard thing to bear.
"When people got back into their homes, oh what a nightmare. What a mess,”
28,000 Manitobans fled their homes.
5,200 residences and businesses were damaged.
After the flood, the province embarked on a massive project to expand the floodway, enabling it to accommodate greater volumes of water. But many towns grew from this - they rebuilt, expanded, and united together as a community.