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25 years later, lessons learned from 1997 flood protect Fargo-Moorhead area

Twenty-five years ago, on April 18, 1997, Fargo-Moorhead fought the worst Red River flood in a century. It was a wake-up call that showed the cities were vulnerable against once unimaginable floods.

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Looking southeast, not even a road is visible as water surrounds houses in the Timberline neighborhood in southwest Fargo in 1997.
Dave Wallis / The Forum
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FARGO — Morrie Lanning won’t forget staring at water erupting like a geyser from a manhole cover in south Moorhead when floodwater infiltrated the storm sewer system.

That frightening spectacle, which came in the middle of the night, happened during the 1997 Red River flood, which crested 25 years ago on April 18 at 39.72 feet, then a record.

“It was really kind of scary to see geysers coming out of the street,” said Lanning, Moorhead’s mayor at the time. “It was incredible to see that water. I’m sure it shot up 20 feet in the air.”

One of the most sobering moments for Bruce Furness, who was Fargo mayor, was when engineers decided it was necessary to build a contingency levee in far south Fargo — enraging homeowners to the south, who would be unprotected.

“Some of the people were really upset,” Furness said, recalling that police accompanied city officials at a meeting where emotions surged. “It was kind of tough. A lot of things couldn’t be handled.”

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Fortunately, the neighborhoods and all but a few flood-prone areas near the river were spared, unlike Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, both devastated by extensive flooding.

The 1997 flood was full of unpleasant surprises — and valuable lessons that helped fight an even worse flood to follow, the record 2009 flood, which crested more than a foot higher at 40.84 feet.

Read more about the 1997 flood fight
FARGO — The very features that attracted Mark McCourt to his northside home overlooking the Red River would pose formidable vulnerabilities once he found himself fighting the 1997 flood.

The 1997 flood, which came early in the wet weather pattern that would produce many more floods, delivered a wake-up call that jolted officials to become better prepared.

One major change prompted by the flood, according to Mark Bittner, who was for many years the city’s engineering director: After 1997, the city of Fargo abandoned the idea that it could protect all areas of the city from flooding.

“That was the most significant change in our strategy,” he said. “In the past, we tried to protect everyone.”

As a result of that decision, home buyouts in flood-prone neighborhoods accelerated after 1997 and picked up again following the 2009 flood, Bittner said. “That grew and grew and became a major part of our protection plan,” eliminating the need to protect many of the hardest-to-defend areas.

The city also started a program to add and upgrade sewage lift stations, create water retention areas and improve storm sewer capacity, Bittner said.

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The decades preceding 1997 produced mostly dry or normal weather. The 1897 flood, just slightly lower than the one that would follow a century later, had faded from memory.

Fargo-Moorhead had to fight major floods, including those in 1969 — 37.34 feet — and 1979 — 34.93 feet — but those battles were much less of a challenge than 1997, Bittner said.

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A boater moves along Wall Street April 15, 1997, in Oakport Township during the height of the 1997 flood.
Bruce Crummy / The Forum

Information, including river levels, was scant in 1997 compared with what it is today, said Pat Zavoral, former Fargo city administrator. Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey river gauge near Island Park was little more than a “ruler by a tree,” he said.

“Today, it’s really amazing how they can tell exactly what’s going on,” said Zavoral, who retired in 2015.

Bob Zimmerman, engineering director for the city of Moorhead, agreed that much better forecasting and monitoring information is available, enabling improved planning.

Because of the decades of predominantly dry or normal precipitation that came before the 1997 flood, “Floodplain management was sort of an afterthought,” Zavoral said. “We had to get up to speed in a hurry.”

One intense moment during the 1997 flood fight came in the wee hours one morning when a crack was discovered in the levee near Island Park and what then was St. John’s Hospital, now Prairie St. John’s.

Volunteers and firefighters quickly mobilized and were able to repair the crack with a sheet of plastic covered by sandbags, preventing a breach, Zavoral said.

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Aerial photos showed a massive body of water eight miles wide and 15 miles long flowing toward Fargo-Moorhead.

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Thousands of sandbags line both sides of South River Road in Fargo in 1997 near Lindenwood Park as they wait to be transported to the nearby permanent earthen dike already in place along the Red River. Each pallet contained 60-70 sandbags.
Dave Wallis / The Forum

Perhaps even more dramatic, though, was Fargo’s imperiled far south side and the scramble to build emergency levees and sandbag walls. Marines from Minneapolis joined neighbors in that effort and helped place sandbags.

“That was a really hairy situation,” Zavoral said. “You didn’t know what you didn’t know, so we kept plugging.”

In 1997, cellphones were just starting to be widely used, and during the flood, the cellular phone system was overwhelmed — one of many lessons that left officials better prepared for what was to come in 2009, he said.

In ‘97, we were protecting neighborhoods, and in 2009, we were protecting the city.
Pat Zavoral, former Fargo city administrator

After the 1997 flood, officials from Fargo and Moorhead devised the southside flood control plan. As the name implies, the plan focused on the flood-prone neighborhoods on the cities’ south sides, more vulnerable than areas to the north.

That plan called for adding floodwalls — some of which were built — as well as water retention features and a controversial option that would have straightened the river channel, allowing water to flow directly rather than meander through an oxbow or two.

“The Minnesota DNR got a little excited about that,” Zavoral said, and the channel-straightening proposal was quickly shelved.

The southside flood plan’s price tag was $161 million — miniscule compared to the massive $ 3.2 billion flood diversion project, now five years from completion, that stemmed from the more severe 2009 flood.

The big difference between the 1997 and 2009 floods, in Zavoral’s view: “In ‘97, we were protecting neighborhoods, and in 2009, we were protecting the city.”

That was the same in Moorhead, Zimmerman said. Only some riverfront neighborhoods were threatened by the 1997 flood, he said.

As with Fargo, Moorhead made some flood protection improvements, including raising and extending flood barriers in a couple locations and adding some stormwater lift stations, Zimmerman said.

“At that time, a 40-foot flood was unimaginable, and the improvements to tackle that would be enormous” and would not be proposed until the diversion plan materialized years later, he said.

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Emily Roers guides one of her quarterhorses out of her residence along Wall Street north of Moorhead as the Red River's 1997 floodwaters cover the street.
Bruce Crummy / The Forum

One of the reasons Fargo-Moorhead won the 1997 flood fight, while Grand Forks-East Grand Forks did not, was that the larger metro area had a bigger base of contractors and earth-moving machines, Zavoral said.

Or, as he put it, “More iron moving more dirt more quickly.”

The diversion will protect against a 100-year flood, defined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as 41.4 feet to 42.1 feet. Fargo-Moorhead and other cities in the Red River Basin should be planning for even worse floods, Lanning said.

“The ‘97 flood really gave a tremendous impetus to do things on a basin-wide level,” he said, prompting discussions that led to formation of the Red River Basin Commission, which spans the basin in the U.S. and Canada.

The Red River Basin Commission is working on a study of what would be required to protect against a 200-year and 500-year flood, Lanning said, noting Winnipeg is protected against a 700-year flood.

“What more do we need to protect beyond a 100-year flood?” Lanning asked. “We’re still not where we need to be, long term.” Drawing from journals kept by fur traders in the Winnipeg area, researchers believe an immense flood in 1826 had flows 40% greater than the 1997 flood.

Fortunately, Zimmerman said, engineers believe the diversion would enable Fargo-Moorhead to be fortified to hold back a 500-year flood using temporary measures, such as emergency levees and sandbag walls.

“The beauty of the diversion project, it is very resilient and very robust in terms of how it was designed,” he said, providing significantly more protection than floodwalls and levees alone could, with a 30-mile channel that would divert half of the flows during extreme floods.

That level of protection is the result of years of hard-fought battles with the Red River, beginning with the pivotal 1997 flood.

Related Topics: RED RIVER1997 FLOOD2009 FLOODFARGO-MOORHEAD DIVERSIONMEMBERS-ONLY
Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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