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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: The River Closes In

Undoubtedly, the people who suffered the most on April 14 were the residents of Breckenridge, Minnesota. After watching most of their city succumb to water – and then ice – from the nearby Bois de Sioux, Otter Tail, and Red Rivers just a mere week earlier, overland flooding threatened the city once more by April 14. Although not all at once, about 400 homes were evacuated in this second wave of flooding. At one time during the course of April 15, the entire city of Breckenridge was in danger of going under water (see videos below).

Situations weren’t quite as dire in the Fargo/Moorhead area, but they were certainly still tense. After thinking that the Red River there had crested on April 12, the residents there started witnessing the water level rising once again on April 14.

By April 15, the water continued its precarious rise, topping the 38-foot mark and inching ever closer to the record 39.10 foot mark measured a century earlier in 1897. For the most part, the cities of Fargo and Moorhead were in unfamiliar territory; few had ever seen the water that high before, and, because of the unpredictability of the water coming in via overland flooding, it was futile to predict when the river would finally begin receding.

Worst yet, cracks begin developing during the afternoon of April 15 on the earthen dike that the city of Fargo constructed right down the middle of 2nd Street in an attempt to protect the downtown area. Because there were people assigned to continually patrol the dike and be on the lookout for problems, the cracks were quickly identified and repaired, but officials were still concerned. Later in the evening, city officials decided to rapidly build a second earthen dike one block to the west of the original one, in case more cracks showed up.

Conditions north of the Fargo/Moorhead area were not good. Dikes were failing and homes were going under water in the Oakport Township just north of Moorhead. Some residents were forced to evacuate with aid from the U.S. Coast Guard, which had been helping in the region since the floods in Breckenridge/Wahpeton and Ada.

Farther north of the Oakport Township are numerous small towns in Norman County extremely close to the Minnesota side of the Red River. Residents in Hendrum and Perley not only had to put up with the nearly 10-mile wide Red River there, but also strong winds that were eroding earthen dikes and causing whitecaps to appear on the flood water.

The flooding occurring in the southern portion of the Red River Valley was looked at wearily by residents in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Residents in the area continued to frantically build dikes and sandbags. By April 14, earthen dikes had shut down quite a few major roads near the river in Grand Forks, and it was becoming increasingly harder for volunteers to even get around within the city.

That became even harder when two of the three bridges that cross the Red River in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks – the Point Bridge and Sorlie Bridge – were closed on April 15. Now, the sole link between the two communities was the Kennedy Bridge on U.S. Highway 2.

Also, on April 15, the National Weather Service increased its crest prediction for Grand Forks and East Grand Forks to 50 feet. Up until this point, it had been 49 feet. But with the river at 46.6 feet on April 15 and enormous amounts of water still to flow north, the National Weather Service thought it increasingly likely that the Red River would crest higher than the 48.81 foot crest in 1979. With the increased crest prediction and worsening conditions in the Fargo/Moorhead area, Grand Forks and East Grand Forks officials began refining the cities’ evacuation plans, in case the unimaginable happened and the cities went under water.

The English Coulee had become UND’s own river by April 15. New dikes were being built on both sides of the coulee to protect Smith Hall, Wilkerson Hall, Gustafson Hall, and electrical transformers near the Chester Fritz Auditorium and Wilkerson Hall. The volunteers helping to construct the dikes were treated to the sounds of UND’s carillon bells playing music. No building on campus had yet to suffer damage, but the coulee’s rising water had forced the closure of a foot bridge behind Smith Hall and a pedestrian underpass under University Avenue. Classes, however, were still being held as normal, even though many students were wondering how long it would be before the university shut down completely.

Check back April 16 for the next installment in this series.

Videos related to this entry:
After suffering through one flood just a week earlier, a second devastating flood strikes Breckenridge, Minnesota (from KSTP-TV, St. Paul)

After suffering through one flood just a week earlier, a second devastating flood strikes Breckenridge, Minnesota (from WDAY-TV, Fargo)

April 15, 1997 was a busy day in the Fargo, North Dakota/Moorhead, Minnesota area. Areas north and south of Moorhead were being surrounded by water, and, worst of all, an earthen dike in the city of Fargo developed cracks, prompting the city to spend all night building a secondary one to try to protect downtown.

Pictures related to this entry:

Downtown Fargo during the height of the flooding

The secondary dike built in downtown Fargo after cracks appeared in the first one

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: "Dreaming of Sandbags"
Flood of '97 Series: "Hard-Hearted Hannah"
Flood of '97 Series: The Cruel Winter of 1996-97
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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001