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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: "Hard-Hearted Hannah"

"We're in the hurt bag. We're drowning internally."
-Dan Rood, Wahpeton (ND) Mayor

Respite from the cold, oppressive weather that had griped the Red River Valley during the winter of 1996-1997 came toward the end of March 1997 when temperatures reached into the comparatively balmy 30s and 40s.

The relief ended there, however, as residents up and down the valley came to the realization that with the rising temperatures, the unbelievably massive piles of snow that had accumulated over the winter would need to start melting. As it turned out, nature actually seemed to cooperate for once when it came to this first wave of melting in the second half of March. From the 16th of the month onward, daytime high temperatures generally were in the upper 30s to lower 40s and nighttime lows were below freezing. Additionally, little additional precipitation fell. All of this facilitated a gradual melt, which was seen as being particularly desirable in trying to ensure that there would be as little flood-related damage as possible.

Nevertheless, there was just too much snow that had to be melted. By April 1st, flooding had arrived in earnest in places such as Wahpeton (ND), Breckenridge (MN), Sabin (MN), Dilworth (MN), Casselton (ND), and Ada (MN). Though out of the scope of this series, it should be noted that it was at this same time that flooding began on the Red River’s south-flowing cousin, the Minnesota River. Montevideo and Granite Falls were two Minnesota cities hit particularly hard.

Getting back to the Red River Valley, the type of flooding that had begun occurring by the beginning of April can be placed into two categories. The first is the logical one: water from molten snow ran into creeks and rivers and they subsequently swelled until they overflowed their banks. This is what was happening, at an alarming rate, in cities such as Wahpeton, Breckenridge, Sabin, and Ada.

On the other hand, the Red River Valley is amazingly flat. Even though it consists of numerous creeks and rivers that flow into the Red River, which itself later empties into the large Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, the valley’s flatness means that water is transferred and drained rather inefficiently. Consequently, some places, like Casselton (20 miles west of Fargo), experienced "overland flooding," where snow effectively melted into puddles the size of lakes. These new "lakes" then started taking on lives of their own, threatening people living miles away from the nearest river or creek. Such was the case in Casselton as well as in outlaying areas of Cass (ND), Clay (MN), and Norman (MN) Counties.

By the morning of Friday, April 4, 1997, the National Weather Service in Grand Forks had started issuing storm warnings predicting that a potent winter storm would develop throughout the valley over the weekend. Although Friday morning started rather calmly (with the exception of fog from the snowmelt), conditions started deteriorating by the evening. Blizzard Hannah was arriving.

The storm started with heavy rain. This turned into freezing rain, and then sleet, which, in turn, became heavy snow. As the snow started coming down, the wind started to gain ferocity – even by Red River Valley standards. There was about a 15-hour time span between Saturday evening and Sunday morning in which many locales reported sustained winds of 40-60 mph; gusts at times topped the hurricane-force mark of 74 mph.

By Monday, April 7th, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the area was concluding. It left not only an additional, unneeded 6-10 inches of snow, but also utter destruction. Thousands of people lost power when power poles snapped like twigs in the wind; hundreds of farmsteads that had already lost land due to flooding lost livestock; the second-tallest man-made structure in the world, the 2060 foot KXJB-TV transmitter near Galesburg, ND, crashed to the ground. Most destructively, however, the cities of Wahpeton, Breckenridge, and Ada were completely inundated after the additional precipitation ripped dikes apart. By April 7th, the Minnesota Army National Guard helped to move all residents out of Ada, making it a darkened ghost town. Many had made the heart-wrenching decision to leave after fluctuating water pressure blew out drain plugs, causing basements and streets to fill with raw sewage.

The images to come out of Wahpeton, Breckenridge, and Ada were some of the most bizarre and memorable during the entire flood of 1997. When temperatures plunged to record-breaking levels after Blizzard Hannah, all the water that had devoured these cities froze, leaving everything – cars, houses, trees – trapped. As a way to help ease flooding once the ice started to melt, officials in Breckenridge and Ada began chopping the ice and hauling it away – they were literally trying to take the flood away piece by piece.

The destruction playing out on the southern end of the Red River after Blizzard Hannah was closely monitored by those living in the northern, upstream portions, which really had yet to experience major flooding. With the 49 foot crest prediction still valid for the Red River in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, the two cities were diligently seeking volunteers to help place sandbags on city dikes so that they could be raised to 52 feet. Plans were also being made to haul in clay and soil to make improvised dikes in case the permanent ones failed.

The need to make all dikes higher in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks was underscored by the drastic rise of the Red River above the 28 foot flood stage. The gauge (on the East Grand Forks side of the river) measured 27.55 feet at 9 pm on Friday, April 4; 3 days later at 9 pm on Monday, April 7, it measured 37.49 feet. And the water continued to rise...

Check back around April 11 for the next installment in this series.

Links related to this entry:

Click here to read a first-person account of what it was like to live through Blizzard Hannah (PDF).

Click here for the archived weather measurements in Grand Forks on Sunday, April 6, 1997, during the worst of Blizzard Hannah. Notice that the first three measurements have no wind speed; this is likely because the automated system cannot measure sustained wind above 46 mph (40 knots).

Although there were many great photos that were published during this time span, not too many were included in the books I used in collecting information to write this entry. So I’m going to an include a link to a Fargo Forum website that features some (unfortunately) low-resolution pictures taken in the days following Blizzard Hannah. Click here to view.

Videos related to this entry:
Here is a video montage of WDAY-TV's coverage of Blizzard Hannah and the resulting flooding in Wahpeton, Breckenridge, and Ada

Pictures related to this entry:

Sources used in writing this entry:
Floodwatch '97. Videocassette. WDAY Television News, 1997.

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.

Varley, Jane. Flood Stage and Rising. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001