As water rises, a valley tested on past lessons

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Other parts of the valley were also testing new systems.

Tiny Hendrum, Minn., a town of 315 people, is feeling confident. Sandwiched between the Red River and the Wild Rice River, it struggled in 1997, piling last-minute sandbags to limit flooding as much as possible. Since then, they've added several feet to the earthen levee that surrounds the town, added new pumps, and are prepared to seal off their town completely to the water they expect will surround it.

"We feel we're sitting pretty good right now," Hendrum mayor Randy Berggren told the Associated Press. "We just need to monitor the situation."

Upriver and 70 miles south in Fargo, huge areas around the city were flooding - and even sections of the interstate were underwater, though passable - but the city itself remained mostly dry.

On Tuesday evening, dozens of people strolled the top of the town's huge earthen dike to snap photos and gawk at the swollen river, which had drowned trees in 20 feet of water and covered a parking lot and walkway system.

Still, the water seemed to be holding steady a few feet below the top of the dike. A submerged measuring stick had it nearing the 1969 flood level, but still a couple feet below the 39-1/2 feet of 1997.

"I've seen worse," says Jason Valinski, a heating and air-conditioning worker who piled sandbags during the 1997 floods and is riding his bike along the dike to look around. "We usually know what to do. When we get a large amount of snowfall in the winter, you can rest assured that you'll need to brace yourself."

Just south of town, though, the river has become a lake, with University Avenue a thin stretch of concrete slicing through for miles until it submerges along with a "road closed" sign. The spattering of houses are ringed with sandbags, small islands in the spreading water, and owners constantly man pumps in hopes of keeping them dry.

"It came up real quick," says Kelly Adam, who's lived in the Maple Prairie subdivision since 2002 and got a quick lesson in flood prevention Monday night. He and his family started sandbagging around 9 in the evening and didn't stop until 2 a.m.

It's paid off, though: Mr. Adam's yard looks like a small pond, with the kids' play set and a storage shed plopped in the middle, but the house, so far, is dry.

"We couldn't have done it without the neighbors and volunteers," he says, noting dozens of students came to help and stayed until the early hours of the morning. "Everybody pitched in. There were guys singing barbershop tunes as they worked."

Now the bagging is done; he and his neighbors gather in the cul-de-sac in the dusk, trading weather reports and rumors that the river has crested and the water will start to fall.

A passing sheriff checks to make sure they're OK. "Dry in the house," Adam tells him. "Well, it's sure [one] way to water your lawn," the sheriff quips before driving on.

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