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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: Desperation on the Dikes

Writing these summaries for each day of the flood has been taking more time than I have at the moment, so, starting tomorrow, I’ll be posting very similar articles from the Grand Forks Herald. That will allow me to concentrate more on getting pictures, links, and videos posted. In addition, it should allow me to get the entries posted earlier in the morning.

Needless to say, as the next few days went down as being the worst of the worst during the Flood of 1997, I will still be doing a little writing by making my own personal additions to the Grand Forks Herald articles as I see necessary.

There have been and will continue to be quite a few flood commemoration ceremonies during the week in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks that I may cover in some way on the blog. I haven’t decided how best to do it yet, however.

With that said, here is what happened April 17, 1997

April 17 provided the first indications in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks that the fight to save some parts of the communities from being inundated was being quickly lost.

Back to Grand Forks in a bit, but first, the Fargo/Moorhead area was suffering through problems of its own. Water from overland flooding was rushing into the city essentially from all sides, adding to an already stressful situation being brought on by the unrelenting rise of the Red River. Just after midnight on April 17, the Red in Fargo/Moorhead surpassed its all-time record high mark of 39.1 feet recorded in 1897. All at once, it had become officially safe to say that nobody alive had ever seen the river so high in the Fargo/Moorhead area before.

Later in the day, tragedy struck. Out of the blue, an earthen and sandbag dike protecting homes along South Terrace Drive in Fargo's east side just couldn’t take the water’s immense pressure pushing on it anymore. It broke. The water rushed in, mercilessly flooding a neighborhood that hundreds of residents and volunteers had spent days, nights, weeks, trying to protect.

25 homes in the Oak Grove neighborhood, as well as the entire campus of Oak Grove Lutheran High School succumbed to the flood’s water. There was nothing that dejected residents and volunteers could do but walk away and pray that no more houses would be engulfed.

Unfortunately, that more houses would be lost due to flooding was turning out to be an ever realer possibility. Fifty square miles of water was coming in from overland flooding to the southern end of Fargo, and city officials were coming to the realization that this water could cause the entire city of Fargo to go under. Not willing to take any chances, city officials mulled the idea of quickly building an emergency earthen dike on the southern end of Fargo and West Fargo. They would announce the plan to the public the following day.

Back to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, the mood in the cities was turning from optimism to utter concern. Sandbagging continued at a frantic pace, but the river was rising just too quickly, and the water pushing on the dikes was just too strong.

During the afternoon, multiple cracks began appearing in one of the dikes protecting the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Grand Forks and the Griggs Park and Sherlock Park neighborhoods of East Grand Forks. Residents and volunteers tried hysterically to plug the holes sending water, at some times, shooting 30 feet into the air. Some of the tactics included quickly building secondary dikes to hold back water coming in from the cracks or even pouring a special cement mixture into the holes and then covering them with plastic.

Though the efforts were valiant, the battle could simply not be won with new cracks appearing just as soon as the old ones were repaired.

By mid-afternoon, Grand Forks had reached “phase 3” of its evacuation plan – people living in the neighborhoods closest to the Red River or downtown were “strongly advised” to evacuate as soon as possible. Everyone leaving was told to plug basement drains and shut off gas or power services.

As the afternoon wore into evening, conditions worsened even further in the Lincoln Park neighborhood; emergency sirens had begun sounding, alerting all those living in the neighborhood of the seriousness of the situation. Water was pushing up into the streets through the storm sewers, cracks in the dikes were getting larger, and volunteer sandbaggers were finding it increasingly harder to keep up with the river’s rise.

By nightfall, all those living in the Lincoln Park neighborhood had been evacuated. Still, the effort to save those people’s houses kept on going. Floodlights were brought in and placed along the dikes so that the hordes of volunteers still out there – and still arriving from UND and the rest of Grand Forks – could continue the fight.

By midnight on April 18, the Lincoln Park neighborhood had still been spared major destruction. But what nobody knew was how long the battle against the now all-time record flood level could continue to be waged.

To UND now, April 17 was a tense day. University officials were continuing to look at the level of the water in the English Coulee with bewilderment; it had now come up above the bridge on Campus Road behind the Hughes Fine Arts Center and completely swallowed up the footbridge behind Smith Hall.

Just to be safe, UND Facilities Officials on April 17 made sure to document all hazardous and/or radioactive materials in buildings on campus and move what they could to higher ground as quickly as possible. Throughout the day, a team consisting of a Hazardous Material Coordinator and Radioactive Waste Specialist emptied out chemicals in basements and lower levels of such places as the Medical School, Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), and Abbott Hall, home of the Department of Chemistry. In the latter building, however, the volume of materials stored in the basement was so large that the team could only move toxic and water-reactive agents.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.

Links related to this entry:

Click here to see some photos from around the April 17 timespan.

Click here to read "Oak Grove fetes rebirth," an article appearing in the April 17, 2007 Fargo Forum (registration may be required).

Videos related to this entry:
Water from overland flooding continued to threaten outlaying homes in the Fargo, ND area on April 17, 1997

The dike protecting the Oak Grove neighborhood on the east side of Fargo, ND broke during the day on April 17, 1997, devastating many lives.

Aerial views from April 17, 1997 show the extent of the flooding around the Fargo, ND and Moorhead, MN areas. Both overland flooding and river flooding was contributing to turn the entire area into one giant lake.

Sources used in writing this entry:
Beyond the Flood. Videocassette. Minnesota Broadcasters Association, 1997.

Floodwatch '97. Videocassette. WDAY Television News, 1997.

Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Staff of the [Fargo] Forum, comp. Fighting Back: the Blizzards and Flood in the Red River Valley, 1996-97. Fargo, ND: Forum Communications Company, 1997.

Staff of the Grand Forks Herald and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, comp. Come Hell and High Water: the Incredible Story of the 1997 Red River Flood. Grand Forks, ND: Grand Forks Herald, 1997.

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Flood of '97 Series: The Arrival of "The Flood of ...
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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001