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Monday, 29 October 2007 02:39

97 Midwest Floods

Written by  Daniel B. Carlson
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On April 7 rushing flood waters forced the evacuation of most of a Minnesota city for the first time in 1997. Residents of Ada, MN, fled after two normally shallow rivers overran their banks and poured into homes. Approximately 1250 people were evacuated or left Ada after the Wild Rice and Marsh rivers overflowed their dikes. The evacuees included 55 patients of the Ada Municipal hospital that were transported via ambulance to facilities in nearby cities. Some residents who waited too long to leave their homes had to be evacuated in the buckets of front end loaders. National Guard trucks began what became a daily ritual, scouting Minnesota and North Dakota cities, searching for stranded residents.

To complicate the wet situation, northwestern Minnesota had to suffer bone chilling cold, ice storms, and blizzards which left an estimated 50,000 residents without power. Devastated home and business owners, power and phone outages, and impassable flooded roads prompted Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson to begin seeking federal disaster relief early. In all, 56 counties would be declared federal disaster areas.

Ada was not the first Minnesota or North Dakota community to see the flooding catastrophe unfold, nor would it be the last. Many communities in Minnesota had seen floodwaters fill streets, homes and businesses just days before Ada was evacuated. Preparations to divert and contain floodwaters had begun all around the region weeks before the disaster hit. Unfortunately, within the next few weeks many cities in Minnesota and North Dakota would see the devastation caused by millions of gallons of flood waters.

The next stop on the flood tour was the cities of Fargo, ND and Moorhead, MN. On April 11 it was predicted that the dikes would hold and the floodwaters would not crest over the top of the dikes, sparing the cities. On April 13 that prediction was foiled when the National Weather Service at Grand Forks, ND announced that the Red River at Fargo would crest at its highest level this century - more than 20 feet above flood stage.

Even though flood waters surmounted the dikes, hard work by the citizens of Fargo and Moorhead and a little luck kept officials from mandating evacuations. But tough decisions about levee routings forced officials to announce that several hundred homes in Fargo's newest and most expensive neighborhood would not be protected.

Meanwhile, the city of Grand Forks had completed work on all of its dikes, raising them to 52 feet - 3 feet above the expected crest. That would not be enough. By April 17 Grand Forks officials were concerned that the flood's crest would be even higher than previously predicted levels. The flood of '79, which devastated Grand Forks with a crest of 48.8 feet, would be exceeded by nearly 6 feet - smashing 100 year flood records.

The raised dikes did little to stop the raging floodwaters. The rising pressure of the excessive water caused the clay dikes to blow apart.

By April 18 widespread flooding was occurring throughout the Grand Forks area, reaching into downtown and other areas that had been dry earlier that day. By April 19 most of the cities of Grand Forks, ND and East Grand Forks, MN would be underwater. The 60,000 residents of the cities were evacuated.

The situation in Grand forks was worsened by a fire that erupted in two buildings and engulfed most of a block in the city's flooded downtown. Flood waters were so deep that firefighters could not reach the buildings. Instead, they evacuated the area and sent planes to drop chemicals on the blaze. By the time the fire was extinguished at least 11 buildings were destroyed or damaged - the center of the Grand Forks business district was obliterated. Luckily there were no injuries reported from the fire.

While the fire destroyed the offices and newsroom of the Grand Forks Herald, Coast Guard crews were able to prevent the fire from reaching the US West building, which houses all telephone switching equipment for Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Other businesses destroyed or damaged by the fire included a Federal building, a bank, a law office, a restaurant, a dance studio, a formal wear store, and a camera shop.

By Sunday, April 20 more than 75% of the town was underwater. The 50,000 Grand Forks residents were warned by their Mayor that it would be to 2 to 4 weeks before they could return to their homes because it would take that long to repair the cities flooded water plant. North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer called the flooding 'the worst single disaster in the history of North Dakota'.

On April 22 President Clinton visited the Red River Valley. He told residents 'Water cannot wash that [spirit] away. Fire cannot burn that away. A blizzard cannot freeze that away. And if you don't give it away, it will bring you back better than ever. And we'll be there with you every step of the way'. This said just before he pledged $488 million in federal assistance.

As of May 8 the American Red Cross had received more than $27 million in cash donations from corporations, foundations and individuals in support of Red Cross flood relief efforts, including 11 major gifts of $200,000 or more.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has approved millions of dollars in disaster loans to owners of property damaged by the disaster in North Dakota and Minnesota. Homeowners, renters and non-farm businesses of all sizes are eligible to apply for low-interest disaster loans if their homes or businesses were damaged by the floods and severe storms. Disaster loans of up to $200,000 are available to homeowners to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate. Homeowners and renters are eligible for up to $40,000 to replace damaged or destroyed personal property. Businesses of any size may qualify for up to $1,500,000 to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate, machinery and equipment, inventory and other business assets. In addition, small business owners may qualify for economic injury disaster loans if they have been financially impacted by the disaster. The SBA estimates that nearly 5,200 businesses have been destroyed, damaged or affected by the winter storms or floods.

Estimates are that the 1997 floods will cost farmers more than $1 billion. More than 2.2 million acres of farmland were completely submerged, making the planting season in many areas uncertain at best.

While many businesses affected by this disaster will fail, others will thrive. Plumbers, carpenters and electricians for example will experience booming business. The economy also will be helped with insurance claims and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state aid. The recovery period will also be a boom for discount retailers such as Target and Walmart. Edward Lotterman, regional economist for the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, said the economic impact of the flood will be serious, but not as great as some might expect. 'It will switch the composition of demand,' he said. 'Instead of taking a vacation to Hawaii, people will replace the furnace or washer and dryer that were flooded in the basement...'.

Here are some of the statistics associated with the Floods of 1997:

  • The Red Cross served more than 200,000 meals
  • As of Tuesday, April 29, FEMA reported 9,693 persons have applied for assistance.
  • Up to 20,000 persons are displaced from their homes in the flooded areas, and will not be able to return for an extended period of time.
  • More than 30,000 calls were logged to Minnesota's flood information hot line.
  • As of May 12, approximately 3,000 Grand Forks electrical customers and 9,200 natural gas customers were without service.
  • To date, seven people have died as a result of problems created by the winter storm and flooding.

At this writing the devastation of the flooding continues. Rapid City South Dakota is currently being hit, while communities in North Dakota and Minnesota are enduring the cleanup and recovery from this record setting flood season.


Daniel Carlson is Senior Business Continuation Analyst for Dayton Hudson and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for DRJ.

This article adapted from Vol. 10#3.

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