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People in Fort Frances, Ont., have been sandbagging for weeks and still face rising floodwaters

Rising floodwaters in the Fort Frances, Ont., area are leaving people living there with feelings of helplessness, one resident says.

Water levels on Rainy Lake set a record last week, surpassing one set in 1950.

“I had a feeling that there was going to be a lot of water when spring did roll around,” Nathan Calder said Tuesday. “Ice on the lake held on for a lot longer than it usually does.

“It would warm up, we would get rain, and then it would get snow, so the frost never really had a chance to get out of the ground,” said Calder. “It just kept getting driven further into it, so all of the rainwater, instead of soaking into the ground, was just being forced either into the lake or into all these other low-lying areas.

“And as the snow finally did start to melt and the ice came off the lake, it just kind of all spiralled into this constantly rising water.”

Calder said what he’s seeing now is “mind blowing.”

“There’s a lot of infrastructure along the lake — things that are being affected by either the water and flooding itself, or just a lack of business due to what’s going on with the water.”

The basements of homes along the river are being flooded and historical buildings are at risk of being lost, he said.

“There’s a train bridge, actually, that goes across into Ranier, Minn., and people are saying that there’s a chance that the train bridge might get lost over all this,” said Calder.

Another Fort Frances resident, Janice Tucker, said she and her husband, a commercial fisherman, have a business on an island in the northern arm of Rainy Lake.

“At the moment, our lake home has water in it,” she said. “My husband’s business, he can’t, basically, do it, because everything is flooded.”

Residents ‘sandbagging for weeks’

Tucker said she and her husband and others on the lake “have been sandbagging for weeks now. We ferried over 4,000 sandbags to the island to try to save things, but the wind with the high water kind of did us in.”

Tucker said more supports are needed to help people address the flooding, which is affecting the entire Rainy River basin.

“Fort Frances is kind of like a sister city with International Falls and Ranier, Minn. — there’s just a bridge separating us,” she said. “They have the National Guard called in, they have machines that make the sandbags.

“When people need help, a whole gang of people they don’t know just show up and start sandbagging. We have nothing here.”

Tucker said she has contacted newly re-elected Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford’s office, and has heard the office has made a request to the province for more supports.

CBC contacted Rickford’s office, as well as the Ministry of the Solicitor General, which oversees Emergency Management Ontario, but had not yet received a response at time of publication.

Calder said people in Fort Frances are coming together to help each other in the meantime.

“The dynamic in a small town is kind of always like that, but in situations like this, people come together even more,” he said. “You know, there’s been a lot of volunteers from the [Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry], Mennonite communities, from outside town, high school students and stuff like that, all getting together to help out with sandbagging efforts.”

While Calder said there has been some support from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, he too wants to see more provincial support in the area.

Water runs up over the walkway and a road along the Fort Frances riverfront in this drone photo. (Nathan Calder/Facebook)

“I’m surprised, honestly, that they haven’t called in like army reserves to come out and help out,” he said. “People are getting together to help each other, but people still go to work and go about their daily lives.”

Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski visited the area on the weekend, and toured Fort Frances, Watten Township, Halkirk Township, Couchiching First Nation and Seine River First Nation.

“I visited one home where their couch is half under water and all their furniture is half under water,” he told CBC News. “Places which previously hadn’t been islands that are islands with only the house basically surrounded by lake.

“Some places … they clearly lost the battle to keep the waters back, but other places where they were battling so far successfully, but only because of doing a lot of sandbagging.”

Powlowski said while emergency support would generally fall under Ontario’s purview, there are mechanisms that allow the federal government to step in as well at the province’s request. 

“It can’t be either a bunch of citizens or the municipality going to the federal government; it has to be from the province,” said Powlowski. “If the province is basically unable to cope with the disaster on their own, they can put in a request for assistance to the federal government.”

Powlowski said he’s spoken to federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair about the flooding.

“He has told me that if there is a request, the federal government will come and assess the situation and see what they can do,” said Powlowski. “Now, that isn’t a guarantee that the army’s going to come and help people out, but that is a possibility.”

Public Safety Canada told CBC News in a statement Tuesday it “has not received a request for federal assistance from the province of Ontario for the Fort Frances/Rainy River area.”

When will water levels peak?

Calder said he’s heard mixed information about how long it will take for the water to start receding. One news report indicated it may begin in mid-June.

However, he also spoke to a family relative, a commercial fisherman, who believes the water levels won’t peak until mid-July at the earliest.

“He knows this lake better than probably anyone around here,” said Calder. “Quite honestly, I would trust his opinion on it.

“And it’s dependent not only on rainfall, but the dams upstream from Rainy Lake, as well. Depending on their floodgates and how many they have open, if any, that’s going to contribute to the rise and fall of the lake levels here, too.”

Calder said he doesn’t live along the river and hasn’t been directly affected by the flooding.

“For somebody like me, it’s worrisome because I feel really bad for the people that it is affecting directly,” he said. “I know that there’s no stopping it.

“It’s kind of just an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.”

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