Red River flood fighters juggle sandbagging, physical distancing

By | April 7, 2020

The Red River has spilled its banks near the town of Emerson, where the threat of rising waters is being complicated by the COVID-19 health emergency.

Bill Spanjer, the emergency co-ordinator for the municipality of Emerson-Franklin, has plenty of experience responding to a flood emergency. He said the water is creeping up to the base of the town dike located in the Red River Valley near the Canada-U.S. border.

“The river is certainly starting to come up now with the spring thaw,” he said.

“It has spilled its banks, and at this point, it’s just lapping up against the bottom portion of the dike that surrounds the town.”

Spanjer said the town is expecting the waters to rise another 12 feet — or more than 3½ metres — and will crest between April 15 and April 20.

Overland flooding from the Red River near Emerson, Man., last April. (Submitted by Bill Spanjer)

He said the river does “not pose any danger” to the community or its infrastructure, as the town has more than a week to get ready.

“One of the major things is that we’re always prepared for an evacuation,” he said, adding that COVID-19 has changed their outlook and planning for how to deal with displaced residents.

Adapting flood response amid pandemic

Spanjer said the municipality is unable to open an centre for evacuees to show up and register in person due to the province’s public health advice to maintain safe physical distances to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“And that’s simply because all of a sudden you would have one facility with all kinds of people congregating in there and under the present circumstances with COVID-19 that’s certainly not a wise idea,” he said.


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Instead, Spanjer said the municipality is asking people who leave on their own to contact the local emergency co-ordinators or the municipal office “just so that we know that they have left, that they are safe, and that we know where they are in the situation that we have to contact them.”

Most people would gravitate to “higher ground” with family or friends in Winnipeg or elsewhere outside the flood zone, he said.

Some hotels in the surrounding area are out of the question as the buildings are being turned into isolation centres to house people affected by COVID-19.

The public works department has sandbags available in the spring, and plugs its dikes with clay when the need arises.

Practising safe sandbagging

The province has come out with guidelines to practise safe sandbagging — while staying a safe distance apart.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the provincial chief public health officer, said that kind of activity is necessary, but there are some safeguards that can be put in place.

“We don’t want people showing up with even mild cough, sore throat or runny nose. We want people to be able to wash their hands frequently. It should be alcohol based sanitizer. Do this frequently, avoid touching your face and eyes, and just keeping your distance as much as you can,” Roussin said.

“You shouldn’t be there if you’re feeling at all ill,” he said.


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Spanjer is confident the dikes will hold up.

“We know that our dikes are built strong. They’ve always stood the test, especially 1997, 2009 and 2011,” he said, adding prediction models suggest the waters will be similar to last year’s flood season.

“Evacuation certainly is not on the horizon or on the books,” he said, although the thinning ice does pose a risk.

“Stay safe, stay healthy and stay away from the waterways.”

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