Emergency responders ‘hope and pray’ Peguis First Nation dodges worst of coming rain

Peguis First Nation, trying to rally from historic flooding that has forced out half of the community’s residents, is now fortifying against another forecast storm.

“It could be devastating again. I hope and pray we don’t get any more rain,” said Dean Cochrane, fire chief in the Manitoba Interlake community, about 160 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

If it does come, Cochrane is hoping he and other emergency responders in the community can get a few more homes protected by dikes.

Mother Nature was kind enough earlier this week to spare the area, with only a bit of drizzle on Monday. There were fears much more would come down.

Winnipeg, in comparison, received 20 millimetres that day.

The break gave the emergency crews time to add more sandbags and reinforce Tiger Dams around several homes, Cochrane said.

The swollen Fisher River broke its banks and spilled across the low-lying community, washing out roads and breaching dikes at the start of the month, prompting mandatory evacuations.

“It came in so fast from the south, it was just like a wave,” Cochrane said. “And it takes a long time for the water to leave.”

A volunteer is seen sandbagging around a home in Peguis First Nation earlier this month. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

More than 1,800 people have been forced out and are now living in hotels in Winnipeg, Gimli, Selkirk, Brandon and Portage la Prairie. Peguis usually has just over 3,500 members usually living on reserve.

Last Friday, Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson said that more than 700 homes had been impacted by the flooding in some way at that point. About 200 of those were surrounded by water and considered uninhabitable, he said.

Fisaha Unduche, the director of Manitoba’s hydrologic forecast centre, has previously described the flooding on the Fisher River as a one-in-100-year event.

The river level has gone down somewhat and water in the community has receded to a point now where it is no longer against any homes, said Cochrane.

The main road has been closed every evening so crews can pump water from one side — where it is trapped after flowing over the road when the levels were highest — to the other side, where it can run back off into the river.

A playground is surrounded by floodwaters on Peguis First Nation on Friday, May 6. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

It’s touch-and-go right now but if another 30-70 millimetres of rain were to fall, the community “could be back to Square 1,” said Cochrane.

CBC Manitoba meteorologist John Sauder says said the rain will likely begin sometime after 10 p.m. Thursday around Winnipeg and into the Interlake.

It’s a system with embedded thunderstorms, which makes it difficult to nail down exact amounts that could fall, but in general it is expected to bring about 30 millimetres, he said.

However, a community in the path of one of those thunderstorms could see 50 millimetres or more.

“A best-case scenario would be 20 to 25 millimetres, but that’s still a lot of rain,” Sauder said, adding he is almost more concerned about the winds over the next couple of days.

Gusts of 50-70 km/h will pick up Friday afternoon with the possibility of surges reaching 80 to 85 km/h, he said. The wind should ease off Saturday morning but is expected to roar back in the afternoon, with gusts up to 50 km/h.

A house, protected by a dike, sits below the water line on the Peguis First Nation on Friday, May 6. Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson said that more than 700 homes had been impacted by the flooding in some way at that point. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

“The wind can really funnel up the Red River Valley” and into the Interlake, Sauder said, adding that could make for dangerous wave action in flooded areas.

“There is the potential for those [waves] to blow apart sandbag dikes and inundate homes. So this is a real double-whammy for some areas.”

Whatever happens, Cochrane said his team is on standby.

“We have people ready to go out in any kinds of weather to beef up [the dikes],” he said. “Hopefully we keep it dry, but we are ready to jump in for any kind of emergency.”