Mitch's Blog 7.0

Mitch's Blog


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: "Dreaming of Sandbags"

By April 9, the extent of the damage in Ada, Breckenridge, and Wahpeton was plainly evident. The areas were declared disaster areas, and the flood of 1997, which was only just beginning, was gaining publicity across the country.

With the widespread flooding and scenes of destruction coming out of Breckenridge/Wahpeton and Ada came widespread worry on the part of residents living in other parts of the Red River Valley. All the water that had inundated those communities was very much still on the ground, and, by the natural order of things, all this water was poised to advance northward in the coming days. Many Red River Valley residents spent virtually all of their waking hours during this time piling sandbags. Creating dikes out of the sacks of soil, which itself was sometimes hastily scooped up from wherever it could be found, including city parks, was the only defense that many people had to protect their own homes and the homes of their neighbors.

The National Weather Service began to slowly realize that its crest predictions might be too low to accommodate for all the overland flooding that was occurring in conjunction with river flooding (see previous entry). Accordingly, on April 9, the crest prediction for the Red River in Fargo/Moorhead was raised to 39.5 feet. Panic set in when it was realized that this would be a higher level that had ever been recorded. Efforts were made to quickly raise dikes throughout the Fargo/Moorhead area to unprecedented levels. As it turned out, however, on the next day – April 10 – the National Weather Service corrected itself and lowered the predicted crest to its previous level. A faulty automated gauge near South of Fargo near Hickson, North Dakota had been used to make the prediction.

Just like it had been for weeks prior, the crest prediction at Grand Forks continued to stand at 49 feet. On April 11, the National Weather Service speculated that the Red River would crest at this level in Grand Forks/East Grand Forks during the week of April 20-27.

April 11 was actually a busy day that also featured one of first of several visitors to the area from Washington D.C. in the form of Vice President Al Gore. He toured the southern portion of the Red River Valley, witnessing firsthand the damage in Breckenridge/Wahpeton and the valiant efforts being waged to fend off water in the Fargo/Moorhead area, offering comforting words along the way and promising that the federal government would be there to help residents with the cleanup.

Also on April 11, the Red River in Fargo/Moorhead appeared to finally be leveling off at a level of 37.55 feet, the second-highest level in local history. All was not fine, however, as an enormous pool of water from overland flooding and the nearby Maple, Sheyenne, and Wild Rice Rivers had the entire Fargo/Moorhead area surrounded. The most populous city in North Dakota and the most populous city of western Minnesota were becoming islands unto themselves. This fact was made even more obvious when parts of Interstate 29 were closed north of Fargo due to overland flooding. Getting from Fargo to Grand Forks now required a detour 20 miles to the west.

In Grand Forks during this time, there was a sense of weary optimism as people continued to build dikes that would withstand the predicted crest level of 49 feet. Hoards of volunteers were helping with the effort, including hundreds, if not thousands, of UND students. The university’s Memorial Union was headquarters for the on-campus volunteer effort. 24 hours a day during this time, buses filled with students would depart Memorial Union and make the 3 or so mile trek down to the river to help at first with sandbagging dikes along the river and later with sandbagging dikes protecting private residences.

Starting with this entry and continuing with many in the future, more emphasis will be placed on what was happening on campus at UND with regard to the flood. Because of this, there will be some locations mentioned that probably will not carry any significance to those unfamiliar with the campus. In order to try to convey this significance, I’ve put together a map showing some locations that I think are important to recognize. Click here to view and study this map.

The main threat to UND during the early stages of the flood in Grand Forks came from the English Coulee, the stream that winds through UND (and much of Grand Forks). Most of the time, the coulee is tame and it’s almost laughable to think that it could ever pose any flood threat. But in record flood years like 1997, the coulee behaves much like a large river, which doesn’t bode well for the buildings lying next to it.

With that little disclaimer above out of the way, another thing that happened on April 11 was that preparations were begun to build dikes around three particularly vulnerable buildings on the UND Campus – the Delta Upsilon fraternity, Gamma Phi Beta sorority, and Smith Hall. The cafeteria located (at the time) in the basement of Smith Hall closed indefinitely at noon on April 11 so that a clay dike could be built. From this point on, Smith Hall quickly became one of the most flood-threatened buildings on campus.

Check back around April 14 for the next installment in this series.

Links related to this entry:

Click here to read "The Kindness of Strangers," an excellent account of what it meant to be a volunteer sandbagger during this time.

Videos related to this entry:
Panic sets in for residents of Fargo, ND and Moorhead, MN on April 9 as the National Weather Service increases the predicted crest level of the Red River to 39.5 feet, a level higher than anything previously recorded. The prediction was brought down the next day after it was revealed that a faulty gauge had been used.

Rising floodwaters continue to threaten homes in the Moorhead area on April 10.

Vice President Al Gore visited with flood victims in the Breckenridge, MN/Wahpeton, ND and Moorhead, MN/Fargo, ND areas on April 11, 1997.

The National Weather Service claimed that the Red River in Fargo, ND/Moorhead, MN had crested on April 12 at 37.61 feet. As it turned out, it was too early to say that, because the river later rose to a couple more feet to a level never before seen in the area. Also featured in this video are the efforts being made to save one of the first churches in North Dakota. It wasn't enough, however, as the flood destroyed the church the following day.

Pictures related to this entry:

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.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Previous Posts

Flood of '97 Series: "Hard-Hearted Hannah"
Flood of '97 Series: The Cruel Winter of 1996-97
Flood of '97 Series: Introduction
6th Annual Top 10 Super Bowl Commercials
Weather and Climate
It's Christmas
5 Years ago Today
Riding the Iron Horse


March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
November 2007
December 2007
February 2008
March 2008
March 2012

Current Weather

Click for Brainerd, Minnesota Forecast Click for Grand Forks, North Dakota Forecast

Weather Station


Google Search



Minnesota Counties

Minnesota Counties I've Visited

North Dakota Counties

North Dakota Counties I've Visited


Subscribe to Mitch's Blog 

Through RSS
Click here to subscribe to Mitch's Blog through RSS!
Add to My 

Add to Google

Free Image Hosting at

Mitch's Blog Copyright 2001-2012 Mitch Wahlsten -- All Rights Reserved
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of Mitch Wahlsten and the participants
Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001