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Stephen Harper tours Manitoba flood zone

Stephen Harper tours Manitoba flood zoneThe swollen Assiniboine River covers farmland along Grand Valley Road west of Brandon, Man. as seen from the air on Sunday, July 6, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith

BRANDON, Man. - Prime Minister Stephen Harper got a bird's-eye view of Manitoba's flooded farm fields, washed out roads and dikes holding back a raging Assiniboine River fuelled by floodwater pouring in from the west.

Harper took a 20-minute helicopter tour of the southwestern Manitoba region on Sunday before thanking volunteers and emergency officials in Brandon, Man., for working around-the-clock on the flood effort.

"Obviously we are here to express our solidarity with people as I know everybody is very concerned about the situation," Harper said Sunday after he attended a briefing with emergency personnel at Brandon City Hall. "Many have been affected."

Harper said he will continue talking with Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall about the situation. But Harper didn't promise any financial help over and above the disaster assistance Ottawa already provides during an emergency.

"I want to assure everybody that all levels of government are working together very hard," he said. "There will be disaster assistance in this case as there always is according to the federal law. We'll keep on top of this until we get the crest and get through it all."

The floodwater coming from Saskatchewan prompted Selinger to declare a state of emergency on Friday and ask for military assistance to prepare communities west of Winnipeg for the crest. The river is lapping up against farm buildings and raised roads acting as dikes but hasn't forced any evacuations so far in Brandon.

Selinger thanked Harper for deploying the military so quickly and said there are 500 soldiers on the ground right now helping in the flood fight.

But he said there are some "very stressed communities" in southwestern Manitoba where "50 per cent of the land was covered by water."

"As that water abates, we're going to be in there working closely with them to put the infrastructure back in place and get people moving again," Selinger said "That's our objective is to put everybody back to normal as quickly as possible."

This summer flood was caused by torrential rain last weekend and is expected to topple records set in 2011, which was one of Manitoba's worst floods. Manitoba still hasn't been completely compensated by the federal government for the cost of that disaster, Selinger said.

Ottawa needs to invest more in flood prevention, he said.

"The frequency, the intensity of these events is happening more often and we're starting to see some very serious problems in North America with severe, intense weather events," Selinger said. "We've got to keep focusing on good-quality infrastructure to protect our communities as we fight issues like climate change."

The first crest from the torrent of floodwater appears to have hit Brandon, provincial flood official Steve Topping told a news conference Sunday. The crest is below the devastating 2011 flood level, although levels further downstream are still forecast to be higher than 2011.

A second crest later this month is expected to hit Brandon, but Topping said it will be much lower than the current crest.

Officials say the dikes are holding right now but people living by the swollen Assiniboine River should be prepared to leave at a moment's notice. People aren't expected to be evacuated unless there is a breach in the city's dikes.

Although Brandon was pummelled Saturday by a violent storm, the dikes held firm.

Downstream, hundreds of soldiers from CFB Shilo near Brandon worked tirelessly filling hundreds of thousands of sandbags to help fend off the rising floodwater. Major Mike Legace, with the Canadian Armed Forces, said the troops are trying to fill 125,000 sandbags a day as the crest bears down on southwestern Manitoba.

The soldiers are trying to protect 350 rural homes — 150 of which could be flooded if the province deliberately breaches a dike to take pressure off the Assiniboine River.

Cutting through one of the dikes at Hoop and Holler Bend just east of Portage La Prairie, Man., could ease some of the pressure on dikes holding back the swollen Assiniboine, but Selinger said it will only be done as a last resort.

Selinger ordered the dike cut in 2011, deliberately flooding the same swath of land and threatening homes in the area in order to save hundreds more downstream.

"We can take nothing for granted right now," he said. "We have to keep working flat out to make sure we've got protection in place. The crest could hit the Portage La Prairie area as early as Tuesday. We have to keep working flat-out to protect that area."

Doug McNeil, Manitoba's deputy minister of infrastructure and transportation, said Sunday the pavement on top of the dike has been removed just in case the cut needs to be made. Work continued Sunday to shore up dikes further downstream to make sure they would hold.

Residents in the area are furious their front lawns could once again be used as a floodway. Bev Biccum, who can see the Hoop and Holler Bend from her front lawn, said they still haven't cleaned up from the 2011 flood.

Getting compensated from that disaster was a nightmare, arguing with bureaucrats to refund her for an item as inexpensive as an extension cord, she said.

"This was just a lake," Biccum said, gesturing to her front lawn. "I want to be properly compensated. If this is the second time they're doing this to us, then buy us out. This is our home and you're doing it on purpose."

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