Monday, May 04, 2020

The 1950 Red River Flood: 70th Anniversary

Seventy years ago this week the Red River flood started. It had a huge impact on our family. Later my father was a part of the process that led to the building of the floodway

The 1950 Flood: My Family's Experience

My parents, Clarence Barber and wife Babs, moved into a new house in Wildwood Park in the fall of 1949. My father came to Winnipeg take up a teaching post in economics at the University of Manitoba (neither parent had ever lived in Winnipeg before moving) only to be flooded out in the spring of 1950. My mother had two small children including me, six weeks shy of being two and my brother Steve then a five-month old baby. For my mother, the experience of the flood (as for many others) was truly horrific.

In her eighties she took a life-writing class in Oak Bay B.C. eventually penning over 250 essays about her life. This (slightly edited) essay conveys how for many residents caught up in those events of 70 years ago, it was a dark and stressful time.

My father, around the time the family left Wildwood Park for a house on Kingsway in Crescentwood, was hired to conduct economic studies for the Manitoba Royal Commission on Flood Cost Benefit. This was the commission that recommended the construction of the Red River Floodway. The floodway is now hailed as an unmitigated success, the saviour of lives and property in Manitoba, an outstanding example of the importance of the right infrastructure investments. I will discuss this more below but first my family's personal story of the flood written by my mother who passed away three years ago in May 2017. She wrote it in 2011 when another flood threatened.


I see on TV that once again the Red River threatens to overflow its banks and flood the land. Memories of May 1950, rush back to haunt me.

On May 5, 1950, the day before we evacuated our new home (in Wildwood Park) it was my husband’s 33rd birthday. I had made him a chocolate cake.

After a tense dinner Clarence went back to continue help filling sandbags and hauling them to the dike in a futile attempt to hold back the Red River. The remainder of the cake went out to feed the neighbours, all working on the dike.

With 2 babies in diapers I had been busy with the laundry since I had to dry them on a wooden rack in the basement.  I was also busy with the myriad tasks of a housewife and mother. The last thing in the world I wanted was to leave my little house and money was scarce.

Seeing the large puddle on South Drive which bordered the river I commented on it to Clarence who told me it was not a puddle but the river. We even had close neighbours, both architects who were living nearby in one story houses of their own design.

The day of departure was an appalling nightmare. Leaden skies, rain pouring down, children confined to house and crying. What could we do?

One of Clarence’s colleagues who had agreed to shelter us in the event of a flood phoned the morning of May 6 to say the whole family had come down with the flu and it was no place to bring a baby. Another colleague phoned and offered us shelter.

A wailing siren warned us all to leave. An Ottawa friend phoned volunteering to come and drive us to the colleague’s house. She had heard about the evacuation. Anna had been a senior person in Health and Welfare where I had worked before marriage.

My first thought was what the children would need. Formula was made, food for Paul, diapers both dry and damp, clothes for the children and oh yes, a few clothes for me. I resembled a poor immigrant, scarf over hair, laden with bags and babies as I went out in the rain. But I did evacuate in style in a Cadillac.

Sirens wailing, headlights on at the shopping centre and trucks laden with sand roaring through the streets and a crying baby in my arms.

Anna quickly sized up my refuge and knew there was not enough room for us there. That night I cannot recall at all.

The next day Anna phoned and told me I was going to her sister’s house which had more room. I was very grateful but my heart sank when I saw the lovely carpet and elegant surroundings. Her sister had cooked us a wonderful roast beef dinner with a remarkably good apple pie. The baby still cried although he had been such a happy baby.

I called the doctor and realizing my state, she told me to turn the baby over to my husband and take a walk around the block. When I returned there was a sedative for me to take.

This I did, but I also phoned my parents in Toronto to ask for refuge. Instead my father offered us money not to come.

Because there were forecasts of more rain, which could put much of the city under water, residents were being asked to leave. I had to flee Winnipeg, leaving my husband behind to save our furniture. I flew home to Toronto on May 10th, my third wedding anniversary, wearing my “going away suit and coat”. I was accompanied by a 5-year old girl, daughter of the head of the economics department, my 5-month old baby and the 23-month-old son.
323 Wildwood Park during 1950 Flood
Photo taken by Clarence Barber

Trans Canada Airlines added an extra stewardess to take care of the baby (the plane was a North Star) and shortly after take-off she came to me because he was crying and she did not know what to do. Neither did I.

My mother’s first words were “Aren’t you glad it was not fire!” That thought had never occurred to me.

How happy I was to return 6 weeks later and live in 2 rooms upstairs while the house repairs went on for the next few months. Paul slept in the crib while the baby was in his carriage downstairs.

Before the house flooded Clarence and a neighbour had helped each other by building a ramp on the stairs and slid each other’s furniture up to the second floor. The fridge was on the landing, the bathroom was fortunately on the second floor and I cooked on a 2-burner stove in our bedroom.

The houses in our subdivision were repaired by the builder with several teams. The first came and cleaned out the mud followed by others who created new walls and floors. Shortly before Christmas we were back downstairs. A nightmare, never to be forgotten.

My husband, not knowing what repairs would cost had painstakingly taken up each of the oak floor boards. They eventually got moved to our second home – a big, old house in a higher part of the city. My architect son Steve, that crying 5 month old baby fashioned the boards into a dining room table which is still being used.

323 Wildwood Park in 2009
So, it seemed only just that in l956 Clarence was appointed to conduct economic research for a Provincial Royal Commission to investigate flood prevention on the Red River. The eventual result was the building of the Winnipeg Floodway. Clarence liked to boast later that it was the only commission on which he served that had every recommendation carried out.



The Commission's Innovative Work

As noted in my mother's essay my father was on the staff of the Manitoba Royal Commission on Flood Cost Benefit.  It was appointed in December 1956 following engineering studies that were clear that the only effective way in the long run was to build a floodway, a 26 mile (42 km) ditch around the east side of Winnipeg that then returned the diverted flood waters to the lower Red River near where it flows into Lake Winnipeg.

Appointed in December 1956 the commission was historically significant and was the subject of a published study by historian J.M. Bumsted who noted:
The Royal Commission on Flood Cost Benefit made recommendations that determined Manitoba’s basic policy on flood mitigation to the present day. In many respects, of course, Manitoba has gone farther in terms of structural protection against flooding than any other jurisdiction in the world. The commission’s report also represented, moreover, the first large-scale cost-benefit analysis ever done in Canada, and pioneered in introducing a new approach and methodology into planning and public policy.
He later notes that the key innovation in the study (that came from my father) was the concept of taking loss of income into account in assessing the benefits that would accrue from flood protection:
Two innovative aspects of the damages calculations were the categories of loss of income and extra costs.... they were typically neglected by many cost-benefit studies of the time. The Manitoba economists estimated the level of income produced and then evaluated the proportion of that lost at different stages of flooding.... As for extra costs, the commission estimated for four kinds of extra costs, ranging from evacuation expenses to extra food costs because of displacement to extra labor costs in flooded homes and additional transportation costs.... The commission's report argued that most of the cost estimates were on the conservative side, which was almost certainly correct.
Bumsted  concludes:
Almost unique among royal commissions either federal or provincial, all of its major recommendations were eventually implemented in virtually the form in which it had presented them. Moreover, its analysis shaped the flood mitigation agenda of Manitoba for more than a generation; in 1997, the province still had not drawn free of the conclusions and opinions of this 1958 report. Perhaps equally important, the pioneering work of Clarence Barber represented a real breakthrough for Canadian social science in the 1950s... the 1958 Royal Commission on Flood Cost Benefit was a pioneering effort at applied cost benefit analysis, which had enormous impact upon the province of Manitoba.
Getting the Floodway Built

Although the technical studies were clear in terms of their conclusion that there ought to be a floodway (and some smaller flood control projects), because the proposed projects were so expensive it wasn't necessarily a given that the floodway would get built and when. The government of Douglas Campbell was extremely fiscally cautious and conservative and only appointed the commission under considerable pressure. In fact as Bumsted notes:
Some observers thought him the tightest penny-pincher in the history of a relatively poor province. ... His response to the Manitoba Flood of 1950 was cautious and heavily criticized at the time for its failure to act in advance of federal assistance and its unwillingness to insist on more support from Ottawa.
Duff Roblin
The commission was appointed in 1956 following upon a near flood that spring, plus sustained pressure from Winnipeg business and the daily newspapers. In early May says Bumsted, "the Winnipeg Tribune published a front-page editorial on flooding. The government had begun warning of flooding in late February, but it would have been better if “proper long term precautions” had been taken. The newspaper began leading a chorus of demands for a cost-benefit analysis of the flood protection measures...."

Campbell's slowness to act meant that the report would be delivered to a new government in 1958, the minority administration of Duff Roblin, a more progressive and activist administration that championed the floodway.

As a 2001 article on "Duff''s Ditch" put it:
The project was championed by Dufferin (Duff) Roblin, the Leader of the Opposition and head of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party, but it was vehemently denounced by opponents as a monumental, and potentially ruinous, waste of money. Indeed, the projected Red River Floodway was derisively referred to as “Duff”s Folly” and “Duff’s Ditch”, and decried as “approximating the building of the pyramids of Egypt in terms of usefulness.” The construction of the floodway and Assiniboine River works, would entail a capital cost of over $72 million, amortized over fifty years at 4% interest, at a time when the province had a population of only 900,000 and an annual net provincial revenue of about $74 million.
Roblin's vital role in getting the floodway built is a matter of record. What is not known is something my father related to me about the proceedings within the commission. There was one strong dissenter within the commission named Jack McDowell (who did file a formal dissent from the commission's conclusions). In the end although the other commissioners endorsed the report and its conclusions McDowell kept up a vociferous opposition to the floodway at all the meetings of the commission arguing absurdly that the floodway was unnecessary; all one had to do was clean up the river south of the city of junk that had been tossed in - I remember my father mentioning old rubber boots and junked cars. However, another commissioner, Culver Riley, a leading Winnipeg businessman, would then refocus the discussion on the basic facts, among them that the engineers had clearly recommended that only the floodway would provide reliable flood protection.

PM John Diefenbaker and Premier Duff Roblin
Even with Roblin's strong commitment to the floodway and getting it done as quickly as possible, Manitoba could not possibly finance such a large project on its own. Roblin launched negotiations with the then government of John Diefenbaker on a cost sharing agreement to finance the floodway construction. The negotiations were tough and protracted. I once had the opportunity to view some of the correspondence on the issue the Manitoba and federal governments exchanged during this period.

The federal government supported the floodway in principle, but wanted to go over the project budget in absolutely minute detail. The letters (and notes from phone calls) conveyed the flavour of one order of government pushing the other to assume as great a share of the costs as possible and vice versa. Worried about precedent, and knowing they were going to pay more than half, the federal government looked extremely carefully at every item, trying to minimize their exposure. They agreed, for example, they would pay 59.1% for item X but only 51.3% for item Y. 

The federal government had everything to gain from a floodway as they were on the hook for a significant percentage of compensation to flood victims and for damaged infrastructure. The 1950 flood cost $22 million in aid to victims and another $126 million in physical damages. (Note: my parents did not know when they were carrying out repairs to their house whether there would be any compensation; that came later).

The federal government agreed in principle to pay for a significant percentage of the floodway costs but were slow to come to a final agreement (in the end they paid 58.5% of the cost). In 1962 the Roblin government felt it could wait no longer and brought in legislation so that construction could commence, which it did in October of that year. It was among the largest construction projects ever undertaken in Canada. For example, "At the time, excavation of the floodway channel was the second largest earth moving project in the world (second only to the Panama Canal and larger than the Suez Canal project).   The floodway was completed in 1968 and went into operation.
Floodway where water is diverted from Red River
No sooner was the Red River Floodway completed than it proved of even greater benefit  than anticipated. The decade after 1968 saw a trend toward an increased frequency and severity of flooding with the mean annual discharge of both the Red and Assiniboine rivers exceeding, by 80% and 60% respectively, that of the period between 1915 and 1968. In 1969, 1970, 1974, and 1979, substantial flooding was experienced in the upper Red River Valley south of Winnipeg, costing millions of dollars in damage; yet Winnipeg escaped virtually unscathed with the Red River Floodway in operation. the spring of 1979, the Red River Floodway proved beyond dispute its critical value in protecting the city from potentially severe inundations. In both years (1974 &1979) the volume of floodwaters approximated the 1950 flood, and would have devastated Winnipeg if not diverted by the flood control systems... Moreover, as of 1987 it was reported that the floodway had been put in operation 14 times in the first 19 years of its existence to control threatening flood waters, and had saved a cumulative total of $1 billion in flood damage costs within Winnipeg.
In 1997 came the largest flood seen on the Red River since the 19th century. It taxed the capacity of the floodway almost to its limit. Subsequently, a new project was initiated to expand the original floodway to a handle a much larger inundation, defined as a "once in 700-year flood".

The Importance of Infrastructure

The immense costs avoided by building the floodway illustrate that having the right infrastructure is of immense value to a community and a regional economy. This is not true of every project; Montreal's Olympic Stadium is an example of extraordinarily wasteful spending on infrastructure and there are numerous others. However, for essential purposes such as flood control or public transportation the right infrastructure spending is essential. It can also provide needed stimulus to a sagging national economy.  The deep downturn occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to address the looming climate crisis may once again highlight of the importance of capital expenditure on infrastructure.