As water rises, a valley tested on past lessons
GRAND FORKS, N.D.
An entire river valley is holding its collective breath this week - even as it launches into frantic activity laying sandbags and fortifying homes - to see if its past lessons have paid off.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
So far, the answer seems to be yes.
The Red River of the North isn't quite reaching those staggering 1997 levels that turned it briefly into the "Red Sea" and engulfed dozens of towns, including Grand Forks, N.D., and its sister city, East Grand Forks, across the river in Minnesota. But as it surges this week some 20 feet above flood stage, and spreads out across the valley in vast swaths, locals are closely watching the dozens of new systems and plans put in place since then.
To further prepare, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty this week authorized the mobilization of 135 National Guard troops to work in three counties to aid with dike patrols, security, and traffic control.
In East Grand Forks, a brand-new system of walls and levees virtually surrounds the town, higher than before. Two of the town's three bridges across the Red River are closed, with metal walls erected to stave off the water that's already covered parts of the bridge roads.
It's a test that's come early - the new flood protection system is only 85 percent complete and probably won't be finished for another year - but locals are hoping that it, along with the extra fortification the towns have put in place in the past few days, will be enough. Some watched the seepage coming through a bridge gate on the Minnesota side with trepidation, and worried about ice damage to the bridge. They wondered why the towns couldn't manage to finish the $400 million project by now.
"We figured with the new system in place, it's going to be OK, but it's higher than people expected," says Jack Hammen, an accountant who was here in Grand Forks, N.D., for the '79 flood and had to leave his home for three weeks in 1997. "As long as it crests today [Wednesday] and starts going down tomorrow - then I'll feel even better."
That's what weather forecasters were predicting Wednesday, expecting the swollen river would top off around 47-1/2 feet. That's enough to leave a huge swath of what's now mostly a greenway underwater, but less than in 1997.
Back then, predictions that the water would top out at 49 feet - 21 feet above flood stage - proved far too low. The 54-foot flood toppled levees and swamped the town, forcing 75 percent of Grand Forks residents and 90 percent of East Grand Forks residents to evacuate. A fire in downtown Grand Forks in the middle of the flooding consumed 11 buildings.
It's taken the cities years to recover - East Grand Forks lost some 15 percent of its population, and had to rebuild three of its four schools - but it also forced some serious planning and tough decisions.
Whole neighborhoods were kept from rebuilding, and the river's floodway was turned into a greenway. Levees and flood walls now ring both cities, and diversion channels were built.
"At the time it seemed horrible, but things have come out better," says Chris Walz, assistant manager of the Amazing Grains co-op in a building that was completely flooded nine years ago. Early this week, when work crews were erecting metal walls in front of the Sorlie Bridge and filling in weak areas, people gathered by her co-op to watch, and Ms. Walz tried to assure them it was nothing like '97. "There are still a lot of people who haven't healed yet," she says.