02/08/2012 01:46 EST | Updated 04/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Manitoba appoints panel to probe response to last year's flooding

WINNIPEG - A task force has six months and $4 million to assess how prepared Manitoba was for last year's historic flood and to suggest what could be done better in the future.

The panel, chaired by engineer David Farlinger, is to look at how the province handled the flood which dragged on for months. It will also examine Manitoba's flood forecasting, the state of its flood-control structures and how well it communicated with residents.

Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton says it's time the province took stock of what went right and what went wrong.

"We in Manitoba know one thing and that is you learn lessons each and every flood," Ashton said Wednesday. "You particularly learn lessons in historic floods."

The NDP government has come under fire for its handling of the flood. The province struggled to contain the swollen Assiniboine River by funnelling water into Lake Manitoba and by deliberately flooding properties near the Hoop and Holler Bend.

Water levels along the lake cut off roads and damaged homes and cottages. Thousands of buildings were evacuated and about 2,600 people have yet to return to their homes.

Critics said the NDP should have called the review months ago, but Ashton said the flood's severity made that impossible. Even as late as November, he said, work was being completed on a $100-million emergency channel to bring down the level of Lake Manitoba.

"If you go back to 1997, the flood was very significant, but by late summer the flooding had subsided. The flood was over," Ashton said. "In 2011, it kept going and going and going. We still have a flood ... so a lot of our expertise had to be focused on the flood fight itself."

Ashton said a second review has also been convened to look specifically at flood control structures on Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin.

Ashton's critics welcomed the task force, but suggested the NDP government had to be dragged to the decision kicking and screaming. Conservative Ian Wishart said the Tories have been calling for a review since last fall.

"Why did it take so long?" he said. "Probably because we had to drive them to it. As you see, there has been a lot of criticism ... I think frankly they realized that there are a lot of people out there that want to make comment on this and don't see a forum to do it, so they were forced to go this way."

The panel includes municipal representatives, but Wishart hopes the task force will hold public forums for those directly affected by the flood to have their say.

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard said the task force's recommendations will come too late for the coming flood season.

"This summer, we will basically miss a potential construction season which could have been taken advantage of if this task force had started three months ago," he said. "The response is the right response but it's really far too slow."

The province called a similar review in 1997 which was also chaired by Farlinger.

Flood costs so far are hovering around $815 million. The province is expecting to recover some of that from the federal government.