INTERACTIVE: Inside one of Manitoba's greatest natural disasters
WINNIPEG -- It was the spring of 1950 in Manitoba and urgent warnings were being sent to thousands of Winnipeggers - get out of your homes and head for higher ground. One of the worst floods in the province's history had arrived.
By the time the flood waters would recede – millions of dollars' worth of damage would be left behind, thousands would have their homes destroyed, and one man would lose his life.
It's been 70 years since the 'Great Flood of 1950', and while it was not Manitoba's worst flood – that title was claimed by a flood that wiped out the settlement of Winnipeg in 1826 – it has a prominent place in the province's history.
Most Winnipeggers have seen the collections of black and white photographs depicting the flood – the canoes floating down city streets, rooftops poking out of the water like a row of islands, and sand bags everywhere.
"It's hard to fathom," said Winnipeg historian Greg Agnew, who sits on Heritage Winnipeg's board of directors. "You can see all the pictures you want of the 1950 flood and the devastation – all the buildings underwater – but you really can't fathom the scope of it."
INGREDIENTS FOR A PERFECT STORM
The autumn of 1949 had been wet – heavy rains saturated the soil. The combination of record-breaking snowfalls in the winter of 1950, as well as a warm spring and a fast melt, made for the perfect storm.
While reports of disastrous flooding in North Dakota and Western Minnesota had given Winnipeggers the chance to prepare – the flooding still rocked the province and brought normal life to a screeching halt.
William Hurst, a city engineer at the time of the flood, was on the front lines of the disaster. He detailed accounts of the flood in his diary.
"My time became completely taken up with arrangements for the building of dykes (sic), the acquisition of sandbags, the deployment of labour, giving technical advice to the Mayor and the Council, and being questioned morning, noon and night by the newspapers," he writes in an article published by the Manitoba Historical Society in the 1955-56 season.
Around midnight on Friday, May 5, 1950, Hurst said he was called to the Premier's office at the Legislative Building, along with representatives from all three levels of government.
"It became apparent that the Red River Valley was faced with a disaster of the first magnitude, and that the Canadian Army with its power of command and its ability to obtain the necessary resources must be placed in charge of the flood fight."
The next day the army began to help with sandbagging and evacuation efforts across the city.
The province estimates more than 100,000 people were evacuated as a result of the rising waters.
Flood levels peaked in May of 1950, reaching 9.2 metres (30.2 feet) at James Avenue in Winnipeg, according to the province.
"The first and only fatality of the flood in Greater Winnipeg occurred on Kingston Crescent when a man was drowned while working in a basement," Hurst writes.
IN THE WAKE OF DISASTER
The waters of the Red River eventually began to recede at the end of June, leaving in its wake millions of dollars' worth of damage.
Debris was scattered across the City of Winnipeg. Soggy sandbags still lined city streets. Homes were left waterlogged and destroyed.
The Province of Manitoba estimates that the flood of 1950 resulted in $125.5 million in damages, about $1 billion in today's figures.
Agnew said it took nearly a decade for the province to fully clean up the havoc caused by the flood.
"I would say into the 60s, because that’s when we started building Duff's Ditch" He said.
CATASTROPHE LEADS TO INNOVATION IN MANITOBA
Duff's Ditch, also known as the Red River Floodway, was built between 1962 and 1968. Though it was more than a decade after the flood of 1950 – the memory of the catastrophe was still fresh in the minds of Manitobans.
The Province of Manitoba boasted the excavation of the floodway – which cost $63 million – was the second largest earth moving project in the world.
Unofficially, the floodway has been named after then-Premier Duff Roblin. The massive ditch diverts flood waters around Winnipeg, preventing major flooding within the city.
The floodway was expanded in 2005 following another severe Manitoba flood in 1997, dubbed the Flood of the Century.
THE FADING MEMORIES OF MANITOBA'S 1950 FLOOD
The photographs of the flood are vivid, but the memories of the flood are fading.
After 70 years, those who played an integral role in protecting Manitobans during one of the province's largest natural disasters have passed away. The same is true for the thousands of people who lived through it.
William Hurst died in Toronto in 2000, though the Manitoba Historical Society says he was commemorated with the W.D. Hurst pumping station in Winnipeg.
"We have such a rich heritage. As people pass on, we lose a lot of that heritage because they take the stories with them," Agnew said.
"A lot of times our young kids nowadays really aren't interested in listening to grandpa or grandma tell stories, and so it just kind of disappears."
You can share your memories, stories or pictures from the 1950 flood by emailing them to CTV's Danton Unger at email@example.com