Red River Flood of 1997 & The Breakdown of Collaborate Management

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IntroductionThe largest flood in North America, named "The Flood of the Century," occurred in the northern United States in 1997 (Reid, 2003). The areas of North Dakota and Minnesota received record high snowfalls in late 1996 and early 1997. Coupled with higher than normal temperatures in April, the areas in the Red River Valley and adjoining watersheds created the great flood. The Red River of the North swelled past flood stage and rapidly rose higher than ever in recorded history, to 54.11 feet (Winnipedia, nd).

During the flood, thousands of people were displaced, thousands of homes damaged or destroyed, and the water flooded cities, towns, and farms throughout the Red River Valley. Once the waters receded, there were billions of dollars in damages and the local economy was affected for years in the future. The Red River Valley is prone to flooding. The cities and counties were prepared for flooding, but the combination of record snowfall and the area's flood factors caused even the best preparations to fail.

BackgroundThe Red River of the North (Red River) flows through the Red River Valley, forming much of the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. The Red River begins near Wahpeton, North Dakota at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail Rivers. From there, the river flows northward nearly 600 miles, but only drops about 200 feet in elevation along the way. The Red River ends in Manitoba, Canada at the confluence of the Red River and Assiniboine River. The two rivers drain into Lake Winnipeg, part of the Hudson Bay watershed.

The Red River of the North is the only river in the United States that flows northward (USA Today, 2002). This is a major factor in the flooding of the area due to ice jamming. Since temperatures get colder the farther north you get, as snow and ice melt in the south, the surplus water can hit the unmelted ice in the north and back water up. The flatness of the terrain and the small slope of the river also add to the flooding problems. This has been happening for years and the area is prone to flood.

The Red River Valley is a flat area formed millions of years ago; the former bottom of the ancient glacial Lake Agassiz (Wikipedia, nd). The land in the Red River Valley is hard and composed of clay and soil. The soil has high amounts of "alkalinity," which is is a measure of the ability of a solution to neutralize acids to the equivalence point of carbonate or bicarbonate (Winnipedia, nd). The soil forms a base that absorbs little water, as compared to traditional soil. The area was described by locals as, "any heavy precipitation is like pouring water on a table top. Water spreads out, creating shallow lakes up to 25 miles wide, and even wider where the flood joins existing pools of standing water."The Red River is highly prone to flooding because of its northward flow, slight slope, and the ground and terrain conditions near the river. Flooding common occurrence in the area, but the residents have adapted. Dikes and levees protect towns and cities from floodwater. In the rural communities, homes are built above flood levels and many are protected by dikes.

Prior to the flood of 1997, the worst flood on record was in 1826 when flood waters reached 36 ½ feet in Winnipeg, Canada. Two other major floods in 1948 and 1950 nearly destroyed the city of Winnipeg. Over 100,000 people were evacuated and millions of dollars of damage occurred (Winnipedia, nd). The city undertook a huge civil engineering project named the Manitoba Floodway, completed in 1968. This project put up permanent dikes in eight towns south of Winnipeg, and put up clay dikes and diversion dams in the Winnipeg area. The Assinboine River was dammed by the Shellmouth Dam and the Red River was partly diverted around the Winnipeg (USA Today, 2002).

The cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota are separated by the Red River. The River flows through the downtown and business areas of the two cities. The river is much like an hourglass in the city of Grand Forks. The Red River is wide entering and exiting the city, but is only 100 feet wide through the city. The Army Corps of Engineers created a series of dikes, flood gates, and levees to protect the cities from floods. The Red River flows at depths of 20 -26 through Spring and Fall. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed the protections to about 50 feet, giving Red River double to amount of volume before flooding the cities. Prior to the 1997 flood, the flood water record was 49 feet. The protections built by the Army Corp of Engineers protected the cities (PBS, nd).

The general flood plan is to allow the snow to melt and drain into the Red River. As ice jams the northward flow, the rivers and streams feeding the Red River back up and flood the farmland in the area. Towns and cities are protected by these annual floods through Army Corps of Engineers protections. As the ice jams melt, water flows into the Red River and north to Canada. The Ice jams are the first line of defense for Winnipeg. The jams protect the city from raging flood waters. Once the jams are melted, the Manitoba project diverts the water around the city of Winnipeg and safely into Lake Winnipeg (Winnipedia, nd).

The Flood of 1997The winter of 1996-1997 was the worst snow season the area had ever experienced. There were 8 blizzards that dumped a record of 117 inches of snow in Fargo and 98 inches of snow in Grand Forks. For months before the April 1997 flood, the National Weather Service and North Dakota state officials warned the communities of the impending floods. The North Dakota State's February flood prediction was the Red River would crest at 49 feet, 21 feet above flood stage and 2 inches higher than the 1979 record. The North Dakota Governor warned the state's citizens of the flood season and urged residents to buy flood insurance. The Governor declared a State of Emergency. The Spring thaw had begun in mid March (USA Today, 2003).

Communities prepared for the impending floods. Levees around Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were raised to 52 feet. Towns in the plains of the Red River surrounded their communities with sandbags. Many schools were stopped in March so that students could assist the sandbagging effort. The North Dakota State National Guard dumped sand on the icy river in an effort to speed up thawing in hopes of eliminating the ice jams on the Red River. A late blizzard, the last of the season, struck Grand Forks in early April. This blizzard added 6 inches to the already double than normal snow pack.

In mid April, the Spring thaw was in full effect. The amount of melting snow made water predictions difficult. Traditional methods of prediction became moot due to the extreme volume of water; officials had to wait until the waters rose and calculate the amount of water. The prediction had remained at 49 feet until April 14, when it was raised to 50 feet. The prediction rose to 51 feet April 16, 52 feet April 17th, 53 feet on the morning and 54 feet on the evening of April 18th. (USA Today, 2003).

By April 17th, 47,500 of the 50,000 people in the Grand Forks area and 30,000 people from surrounding areas had evacuated to higher ground away from the Red River. The Red River had already crested above the 50 foot Army Corps of Engineers levees and was being held out of the city by the additional sandbags erected to 52 feet in the months before April. Shelters were set up at the Grand Forks Air Force base and in towns and cities in the area (USA Today, 2003).

On April 18th, water from the Red River poured over the levees and filled the city with water. At 4:30 PM on April 18th, the water was at 52.19 feet and rising by one inch per hour. By April 19th, there was nearly 4 feet of water covering 25 square miles of area surrounding the Grand Forks area. This equated to 50 percent of the City of Grand Forks, North Dakota and nearly the entire City of East Grand Forks, Minnesota. More than 300 homes and business were completely under water. The River crested on April 21st at 54.11 feet; 26 feet above the flood stage. At the flood's peak, the water was flowing at 140,000 cubic feet per second. The normal water flow is 780 cubic feet per second (PBS, nd).

The water began to recede on April 22nd. Within days, the water level in Grand Forks had dropped to below the 49 foot level and residents were allowed to reenter the cities to begin cleanup.

The citizens of Winnipeg had seen the flooding and devastation that struck Grand Forks. Within a matter of days after the Grand Forks flood, an emergency dike later called the "Brunkild Z-dike", was constructed 15 miles long along the south side of Winnipeg. The flood waters splashed over the top of the levees, but never flooded the City of Winnipeg. Many communities around the city were flooded, but the city was spared (Winnipedia, nd).

Breakdown of Collaborate ManagementOne major legal issue was the faulty crest level prediction of the Red River. The National Weather Service had predicted the river would crest at 49 feet, below the level of the levees. The predictions were revised just days before the Red River crested at 54 feet above flood level. The National Weather Service was unprepared for the volume of water the snow produced. Many of the recording stations provided false numbers because water was not traveling traditional routes. The predictions could not be made until the water was actually rising and calculated.

The National Weather Service realized this problem early. They did not change their predictions, but also advised the public of the flawed accuracy of the predictions. The weather service advised the state government, that the flood would be greater than it ever had been before. Based on these recommendations, The State of North Dakota declared a State of Emergency nearly two months before the flood.

Many people in the area and in government criticized the prediction methods of the National Weather Service. One meteorologist suffered damage to his own home because he did not heed the warning of his own agency (PBS, nd). The flood levels had never risen that high and many thought they were safe from the flood and did evacuate and take possessions from the area until the last minute.

The Government had the luxury of time to prepare, as much as possible, for the impending flood. The state harnessed resources from the federal, state, and local levels in preparation. They set up shelters and ordered evacuations prior to the cresting of the Red River. Due to the time of warnings and planning for the flood, undoubtedly many lives were saved.

Economically, the area suffered over $2 billion dollars in damages. There were 8600 homes, 75% of the total homes in the Grand Forks area, and 1616 apartments, 28% in the area, damaged or destroyed. Businesses in the area were forced to close for repairs and replenishment (Winnipeg Free Press, 2007). Schools were damaged and closed until they were cleaned and repaired. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assisted business and homeowners in rebuilding and repairing. Days after the disaster, Congress pledged 700 million dollars to assist in the cleanup (PBS, nd). The Federal Emergency Management Agency also sent thousands of mobile trailers for the people that lost their homes and were displaced could live temporary until they could build their homes again and get on with their lives.

Farming is the main industry in the area. Sugar beets, sunflowers, beans, and potatoes are grown and processed in the Grand Forks area. Millions of dollars in stored products were flooded and ruined by the waters. There are two sugar mills in the area that were closed due to water damage. The fields where the crops are grown could only be partially used. Much of the topsoil had been moved and replaced with silt and debris. Many fields sat idle throughout the season while the fields were repaired and the prepared for the next season. This affected the global prices of many products Reid, 2003).

The flood displaced 80,000 people. Once they were allowed to return, many saw there homes and much of their lives in shambles. The cities had 13 days without water, and 23 days without drinkable water. Five deaths were attributed to the flood, by association.

During the flood, the historic areas of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were under several feet of water. A fire erupted downtown, causing 11 building to burn down. The Fire Departments could not putout the fire. Water drops were made be the Department of Forestry to extinguish the flames (USA Today, 2002).

After the waters receded, thousands of volunteers flocked to the area from around that state and country. The volunteers helped to repair and rebuild the city. Joan Kroc, heiress to the McDonalds Corporation, donated $2000 to every household affected by the flood.

In 2007 was the 10th anniversary of this famous flood that devastated this area. The citizens that went through this flood still talk about it. The people of the area say that nothing is the same and everything has been rebuilt. The only thing that is the same is the people. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has done numerous case studies and research on this flood. This disaster was the largest evacuation flood evacuation in the history of the United States next to Hurricane Katrina.

ReferencesShelby, A (2004) Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City Wadena, MN Borealis BooksThe "Fargo Flood" Homepage Retrieved on 10-17-08 from Plains flooding at a glance. (2002) Retrieved May 20, 2007 from www.usatoday.comRed River Flood of 1997. (nd). Retrieved May 20, 2007 from http://winnipedia.caReid, Russell. (2003) North Dakota History. Fargo, ND. State Historical Society.

Unknown (Associated Press). Flood of criticism from 1997 floods: Did faulty forecasts add to disaster? USA Today. Retrieved on May 20, 2007 from 2007, April 17). Grand Forks Celebrates rebirth: City recovers after flooding 10 years ago. Winnipeg Free Press