By: Mark Boardman
In April and May of 1997 the Red River, bordering North Dakota and Minnesota flooded across the Red River valley causing $3.5 Billion worth of damage, making it one of the most expensive natural disasters ever.
The winter of 1996-97 was particularly harsh in the area with a succession of winter storms piling up massive amounts of snow over the large floodplain. Two of the worst-hit towns were Fargo and Grand Forks which had a record amount of 117 inches and 98.6 inches of snowfall on the two towns respectively over the winter.
The Red River flows north into Lake Winnipeg and as it flows north the temperatures get colder. This causes a problem with ice jamming, where the river freezes and the waters flowing from further south begin to back up against the ice dam. This is a frequent concern for the local community and in an effort to prevent ice jamming sand was dumped on the icy river to help melt the ice and increase the flow.
Flood warnings were put out for the region as early as February and the National Weather Service (NWS) predicted a 49-foot crest at Grand Forks. This peak prediction was not updated until April 14th which was just 4 days before the start of the flood. There were some complaints that the NWS could have made earlier and better crest predictions, but what isn't in doubt is the efforts the residents of Grand Forks and Fargo made in trying to save their towns.
The community built up dykes with sandbags and clay to a height of 52 feet, which was 3 feet above the NWS prediction. Students were even excused classes to help in the efforts. With the 52 feet barriers to the river in place, the residents thought they would be spared. Alas, the sudden thaw of this brutally harsh winter's snowfall over such a large floodplain was more than the residents could have imagined. In Grand Forks, the waters peeked at 54 feet and completely overwhelmed the town. The flooding began on April 18th and town after town along the Red River became inundated with floodwaters well above previous records.
The topography of the Red River valley is very wide, and very flat, leaving nothing to bar the way of the floodwaters once they had broken through their banks. As a result, the floods reached up to 3 miles inland (imagine being flooded by a river 3 miles away!) The waters in Grand Forks, at 54 feet, were now 26 feet above the usual flood stage. A massive evacuation of the residents (75% of a population of 52,000) had taken place and this was repeated in all the towns affected by the flood. This evacuation helped with the remarkable statistic that not a single death occurred as a result of the flood despite its massive scale. Also, a large fire ignited in Grand Forks engulfing 11 buildings, including 60 apartments.
The floodwaters eventually began to subside on 23rd April but took a long while to completely recede. The cleanup operation was on a massive scale. 20,000 volunteers flew in to help the beleaguered residents who had to throw away virtually all of their possessions. Slowly but surely the area returned to normal but those who lived through it will never forget the spring flood of 1997 and will be hoping the next great flood won't be in their lifetime.
By: Mark Boardman
In April and May of 1997 the Red River, bordering North Dakota and Minnesota flooded across the Red River valley causing $3.5 Billion worth of damage, making it one of the most expens...