Memories of 1997 flood back for Manitobans 25 years later, though many want to move on

Jacques Courcelles still vividly recalls his parents’ refrigerator floating in the kitchen, anchored like a boat, its cord still attached to the wall outlet under water.

“My parents had water over top of the kitchen counters. The air in the fridge was what was making the fridge float,” he said, his mind flashing back to April 30, 1997, when the community of Ste. Agathe was first to fall to the Flood of the Century.

“My parents lost their home. They had to rebuild. I had to rebuild. But deep down in my heart, I knew it could and should have been different,” said Courcelles, who was manning pumping stations in town this week as the engorged Red River is once again spilling its banks and spreading across southern Manitoba, reclaiming a floodplain that once belonged to ancient Lake Agassiz.

Ste. Agathe, 30 kilometres south of Winnipeg, is better prepared this time.

A Canadian Forces helicopter with then-prime minister Jean Chretien aboard tours the flooded area of southern Manitoba in 1997. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

In 1997, a body of water 40 kilometres wide by 75 kilometres long formed across the flat farmland. More than 22,000 people were chased out of 20 communities in the Red River Valley.

Towns with ring dikes resembled islands in the growing sea.

Ste. Agathe did not have such a barrier. It sits at the highest elevation between the U.S. border and Winnipeg, and had never been seriously impacted by a flood.

It always got by with a temporary dike built along the road between the town and the river, to the east, supplemented by other dikes to the south and north.

That’s not where the water came from in ’97. It arrived in waves from the flat fields to the west, crossing railroad tracks and Highway 75, both of which government officials believed were high enough to act as levees.

Ste. Agathe is shown in 2011, protected from the river by the dike along Pembina Trail. In 1997, the expanse of water came across Highway 75, at the right of the community in this photo. (Government of Manitoba)

At 12:30 a.m. on April 29, the vast prairie ocean inundated Ste. Agathe, with two metres of water swallowing the roads, lapping against buildings and washing into homes, businesses and the school.

“The water came over the highway by six inches,” said Courcelles, who raised concerns days before the crest reached town about the lack of protection on that side.

In the days that followed, as the winds died down and the water stood still, the town looked like it had been built on a mirror.

There were reflections of houses in the water everywhere, said Eugène Lemoine, now 73, and the fourth generation of Lemoines to live in Ste. Agathe.

“The thing that struck me most was how silent it was. That’s something you can’t imagine — total silence in a community, especially when you live beside a highway,” he said.

A map of the Red River Valley and the 1997 flood zone, showing ring-diked towns (red dots) and other towns without ring dikes (yellow dots). The dashed line south of La Salle is the Brunkild dike and extension. The solid black line indicates the Red River Floodway, around the east side of Winnipeg. The blue is the flood zone. (Statistics Canada)

He said the community got accurate data from hydrologists and the provincial forecasters.

“They said the water was going to come in our community at 776.5 feet above sea level,” he said.

“The dikes needed to be at 778.5. The dike along the river was at that height, but the highway wasn’t.”

Though Courcelles was among the emergency measures personnel, after raising the issue, he was advised to leave with other evacuees.

On April 23, the province had ordered a massive evacuation of communities in the flood path: Emerson, Morris, Ste. Agathe, Letellier, St. Jean Baptiste and St. Adolphe.

The town of Morris, protected by its ring dike, in 1997. (Government of Manitoba)

As water began to engulf roads, thousands of Manitobans were led out of their communities by the Canadian military, heading to Winnipeg, Steinbach and Selkirk — anywhere that stood a chance.

Small teams of officials — municipal leaders, military, RCMP — stayed back to monitor dikes. Courcelles, who was called back to help in Ste. Agathe, remembers watching the water come.

It moved through the fields like it was being urged on, driven by winds. As the edge reached town, the few remaining people were forced to abandon the community while there was still road access.

Courcelles, now 63, came back the following day to survey the damage. He and others went as far as they could, hitting the end of highway pavement in Grande Pointe, just south of Winnipeg — another community that thought it was safe, but was overrun.

From there, they drove a series of side roads, until they had to switch to a boat.

“It looked like a war zone. And once the water went down, there was debris everywhere,” Courcelles said.

There was also a strange phenomenon. The water in basements acted as a conductor and turned on furnaces, creating massive amounts of humidity, like hot-water kettles. 

It made drywall soft enough to slowly push a hand through it, he said.

The community of Aubigny, just south of Ste. Agathe, was also swept up in the floodwaters, with no permanent dike system to protect it. (Joe Bryksa/The Canadian Press)

Lemoine used a farm tractor to drive Hydro workers around town to disconnect power. That was also how he went between his two farm properties to pump out water — but he quickly learned to do it during daylight.

In the dark, there was no way to tell where you were — no roads to guide you, no fields or fences. It was driving through the open sea.

Of Ste. Agathe’s 117 homes, 111 were damaged, either directly by floodwaters or by sewer backups.

Ste. Agathe is shown in this aerial view on April 30, 1997. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Marc Robert, who was 12 in 1997, credits the adults that surrounded him with keeping fear at bay.

“I don’t remember ever being nervous. I kind of felt like it was an adventure,” he said, recalling a summer spent living in a camper while two metres of sewer backup was cleaned out of his house.

While devastating for most, the situation was also extremely frustrating because of the complacency of officials who didn’t better protect the west side, Courcelles said.

“We were just going through the same processes as before — put a dike on Pembina Trail and never worry about Highway 75. But the difference in 1997 was there was a lot more water coming, and we were told that,” he said.

“At the time I was a young man, I knew I could rebuild. I just found it heartbreaking for people like my parents who were in their 70s having to go through the same thing  — and all of the people that were older, that had worked their whole lives to build something, and having to start over.”

Moving forward

But start over they have. Ste. Agathe’s population has grown since 1997 — it numbered just over 400 in the decade after the flood, but the latest census data gives an official count of more than 600 now.

A new multi-use sports and recreation park was developed (the old one was under 15 feet of water after the flood), with 6,000 trees planted in a former flax field. A proper and permanent dike now runs along the tracks west of town.

That speaks to community, to resiliency, to a determination to recover, Courcelles said.

“You can either let it defeat you or stand up to it and say, ‘I’m going to make it better and I’m going to make a difference.'”

Jacques Courcelles and others say it’s time to move past the 1997 flood as a defining time in Ste. Agathe, and embrace the water and the resiliency of the people. (Jacques Courcelles/Twitter)

Now there is a desire to move on and leave the flood stories behind. The first thing Marc Robert thinks when someone asks about 1997 — “enough.”

“It’s something that happened in your life and in the end, the story gets old. I’m just trying to be honest.”

You can’t just keep defining yourself by a flood a quarter century old, said Courcelles.

“Always living in the past is probably not good for anyone’s health. We need to look forward.”

Part of that means not fearing the river, but embracing it, said Curtis Claydon, a councillor and Ste. Agathe resident who helped get a riverbank dock and boat launch built to create new access to the water.

There’s now a hiking trail along the riverbank where houses once stood. A new trail system meanders through oak trees on the other side of the water.

“I lived in Ste. Agathe for about 10 years before I ever got close to the river’s edge and touched the water,” Claydon said.

“I remember marching down to the river’s edge and it blew my mind. I couldn’t believe something so beautiful was tucked away in hiding.”

Ironically, this spring was supposed to bring the grand opening of the new dock — but the 2022 flood has delayed those plans.