Out of retirement and into the flood zone: Sodden Manitoba calls on forecasting veteran

Thursday, May 12, 2011 – Globe and Mail

As Manitoba prepares to open a floodgate in the midst of the Assiniboine River’s worst deluge in centuries, the province is turning for help to a forecasting veteran who thought he’d analyzed his last flood when he retired last year.

Alf Warkentin got the call on Tuesday, when a senior official in the provincial government phoned him, pulling him out of retirement to help fight a flood wreaking havoc in the region while testing the mettle of the engineers trying to combat it.

The province has come under fire for not having predicted earlier just how bad this year’s floods would get. On Wednesday, experts continued to ratchet up their predictions on how high river levels will go, when they’ll crest and how long they’ll stay there. And officials prepared to take the unprecedented step of punching a hole in a dike at Hoop and Holler Bend, purposely creating a mini-flood they hope will stave off the threat of a massive one – a plan whose timing they continued to revise Wednesday evening.

Mr. Warkentin, a former high-school teacher who has 40 years of flood-forecasting under his belt and designed the province’s prediction system, says he wasn’t surprised that he was asked to help, only that it took so long for the call to come.

“It should have come a lot earlier,” he said. “I thought it should have come a month ago. But I guess things got a bit hot lately. … There’s problems, there’s serious problems.”

Mr. Warkentin handed the reins to protégé Phillip Mutulu after guiding Manitoba through decades of deluges. But he says he made himself available to help out heading into what looked like record-breaking conditions. “You’ve got a big flood potential across all of Manitoba; you’d think that a relatively new staff could use some help. But, you know, that wasn’t my decision.”

So far, Mr. Warkentin said, he’s been helping with analysis and assessing the rainstorm and Assiniboine River levels – “giving, I guess, advice and sober second thought to the department.”

He wouldn’t say what he’s being paid or what he thinks of the province’s forecasting and flood-fighting efforts so far. “That’s a dynamite question, you know that. I’ll be crucified.”

Manitoba called on him as it pulled out all the stops in its efforts to combat a once-in-three-centuries flood, says Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton.

“In the last few weeks, with the changing dynamic and the shifting dimension [of the flood], we’ve stepped up not only our flood preparation but the human side of it as well,” he said in an interview Wednesday, adding that they’re trying to mobilize “a bit of an army” of retired engineers. “[Mr. Warkentin’s] kind of expertise is going to be very important,” he said.

But that wasn’t expertise they thought they needed as little as a week ago, he said. After better-than-expected weather during the Red River flooding, the province was prepared for Assiniboine floods approaching 1976 levels. “We’re way beyond a ’76 flood now,” Mr. Ashton said. “But the real indication it was going to hit this historical level has really come in the last week or two. And last weekend is probably where it really crystallized.”

After the flood, there’ll be a review to see what could have gone better – both in terms of preparation and response. But Mr. Ashton said officials did their best with the tools available. “You can go back retroactively and you’ve got 20/20 hindsight. … It’s a lot tougher on the forecasting side.”

Since major flooding in 2009, Manitoba has upped its forecasting resources, increasing the number of monitoring stations throughout the province.

“I can’t say enough about how much effort goes into that, how much we’ve expanded resources,” Mr. Ashton said. “But when you’re dealing with an unprecedented flooding situation you just don’t have the comparators.”

In the meantime, the province is scrambling to respond to record-breaking water levels. It continued to alter plans late Wednesday on precisely when it will open a weir in the dike, releasing more than 2,000 cubic feet of water a second into the surrounding area. While the province had originally said it would open the weir at 8 a.m. Thursday, on Wednesday evening that timing was pushed back to afternoon Thursday.

Amid the confusion, residents in the 225-square-kilometre area were bracing for a flow of water whose course the province admits it can’t predict or fully control. About 1,000 troops have amassed around Manitoba.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured flood-hit areas with Premier Greg Sellinger Wednesday; the province is hoping the federal government will kick in some cash toward a special compensation program for those affected by the controlled release.

As for Mr. Warkentin, despite his eagerness to chip in, he insisted he doesn’t want his old job back.

“I’m not taking over or anything,” he said. “I’m just helping out with a bit of a crisis that’s occurring here.”

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