'We conquered this thing': 20 years ago, F-M fought and largely beat a massive flood
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.
His walk-out basement opened to a backyard patio facing the river, a perfect setting for watching the deer browse and the birds flit among the branches of the leafy trees lining the river. The patio was protected by a small concrete floodwall-much too small, it quickly became apparent, to defend against what was shaping up to be a mammoth spring flood.
McCourt realized it would be impractical to build a sandbag dike along the patio. He made some quick calculations and concluded that a plywood wall, covered with plastic and buttressed by struts anchored at the foundation of his house, could hold back the swollen river.
He would have to become his own Army Corps of Engineers in what was threatening to be Fargo-Moorhead's worst flood in a century.
McCourt recalled his struggle with the river as Fargo-Moorhead prepares to observe the 20th anniversary of the historic 1997 flood, which devastated Grand Forks-East Grand Forks and caused significant damage in pockets here on Monday, April 17.
"The most surreal experience I have ever had-or hope to have," McCourt said.
A psychology professor at North Dakota State University, McCourt had put himself through college by working as a carpenter, so he felt up to the task. First, however, he had to clear away the 9¾ feet of snow-a thick, wind-sculpted blanket covering the Red River Valley that soon would melt and give rebirth to ancient Lake Agassiz.
Frantic preparations like those by McCourt and his neighbors along Woodland Drive were being made at hundreds of homes in flood-prone areas of the cities, as emergency earthen levees and sandbag dikes rapidly took shape.
In McCourt's back yard, with a view across the river of the placid Moorhead Country Club, a series of wary Fargo city officials came to inspect his plywood handiwork, which they allowed to remain. But they built a contingency dike on the street in front of his house, just in case.
All along the river, anxious residents and officials wondered how high the river would rise-and whether the dikes could hold back the water.
Not long afterward, as the floodwater began to press with enormous liquid force against McCourt's plywood shield, that question acquired intense urgency. He was alarmed to discover that the wooden barrier was getting pushed off its concrete base. If dislodged, he realized with alarm, the wall would fail.
Build-up to big one
The 1997 flood came as no surprise. It was the petulant offspring of the punishing winter of 1996-97, which delivered eight salvos of blizzards, beginning Nov. 16 with a two-day storm.
When the snow finally quit, early in the flood fight, a record 117 inches had fallen in Fargo. All winter, people cast anxious eyes as the snow kept piling up, knowing that a formidable flood was in the making.
By mid-February, well before the spring melt, National Weather Service forecasters warned cities and property owners along the river to prepare for flooding that would "meet or exceed" floods of record, sending people scrambling to get ready.
The spring melt arrived the week of March 24 and the expected flood arrived April 1 with a rush of field runoff into northeast Dilworth. More than 100 volunteers encircled the Orchard Estates neighborhood with dikes. The same day, Fargo's sandbagging got off to a slow start with a shortage of volunteers. But the Red River wouldn't wait and reached flood stage April 2.
Mother Nature unleashed one last storm, beginning April 4, when a cold rain fell fell, dropping three inches in two days. Scores of township roads washed out from overland flooding. The next day, the Red River surpassed its record crest upstream at Wahpeton-Breckenridge, where a dike failed, flooding a seven-block area in Wahpeton and prompting Breckenridge to issue an evacuation order.
In Fargo-Moorhead, the downpour turned to freezing rain and then to snow. On April 5 and 6, the last blizzard struck Fargo-Moorhead, dumping 7 inches of fresh snow, driven by winds gusting to 70 mph. The winds toppled power poles, plunging thousands into darkness-and sending many scurrying for gas-powered pumps.
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In one 24-hour period, the river surged more than three feet. Another jolt came April 9 when the flood crest forecast, incorporating the moisture from the storm, was revised up from 38.5 feet to 39.5 feet-putting the developing flood into contention with the record 1897 flood, 39.1 feet.
The revised forecast was quickly lowered with the discovery that a faulty river gauge had fed bad information. More good news came on April 11, when the river crested at 37.55 feet. The mood turned buoyant, and there was a crest celebration at Fargo City Hall.
But the sense of relief would turn out to be short-lived. The flood fight was far from over.
'Soaked to the bone'
Paul Thureen was patrolling an earthen levee protecting Oak Grove Lutheran High School and the nearby neighborhood when he saw a sandbag dike across the street fail, allowing floodwater to pour through.
The churning water was aimed straight at him.
Thureen, a senior at Oak Grove, underestimated the force of the floodwater, which caused the levee he was standing on to crumble and give way, sending him tumbling into the water.
"A lot of moving dirt," Thureen said. "It kind of knocked me over."
He was able to stand. The water was above his waist. "It came up pretty fast," said Thureen. He quickly developed hypothermia from the frigid water.
"I couldn't stop shaking," he said. "I was soaked to the bone."
Thureen was taken to a hospital, where he recovered and the gravity of the dousing finally sunk in. "It took a couple of days to really realize what happened," said Thureen, now an information technology consultant in Seattle.
The dike failures caused the Oak Grove neighborhood to flood, damaging 25 to 30 homes as well as Oak Grove school. It was probably the Fargo neighborhood hardest hit by the '97 flood.
Like a war zone
Bruce Furness's most difficult decision as mayor of Fargo was the day he had to decide to build an emergency dike on the south side-leaving 600 homes on the wrong side of the dike at risk of going under.
The decision was made after officials took a helicopter tour and were horrified to see a massive pool of water-36 square miles of waterlogged fields-flowing overland toward the city's southwest edge.
"We had to make that decision to save the rest of the city," Furness said. Contractors scrambled to build a dike along 40th Avenue South, with trucks hauling and heavy machinery operating around the clock.
"It was like a war zone down there," he said. "It was dangerous, actually."
Crews also had to cut a channel through Highway 81 to allow Rose Creek, which had become a lake and threatened to flood the south side, to drain into the Red River.
"That helped," Furness said. "It just stopped, like a miracle."
Saved by youth
Morrie Lanning won't forget walking the streets of Moorhead's Brookdale neighborhood, south of Interstate 94, and seeing something he'd never seen before, despite years of dealing with floods.
"We had storm sewers that were shooting up geysers," he said. "That's scary. You realize the river is coming at you from under the ground."
City employees came up with what Lanning, then Moorhead's mayor, thought was an ingenious solution. Steel plates were placed over the manhole covers, secured by parked garbage trucks.
"We ended up evacuating that neighborhood in the middle of the night," he said. "Having to evacuate a neighborhood in the middle of the night is something you don't forget."
Lanning, who once found himself sandbagging next to jail inmates, credited college and high school students with helping to save the city by thronging to the sandbag barricades.
"If it hadn't been for the college students, the high school students, the young people, we would have lost that fight," he said. "They came out in droves."
'Wave of emotion'
Clarence Herz was studying with a pot of coffee at a truck stop cafe on the south edge of Fargo when a call went out at 2 a.m. for volunteers to help sandbag along the dike by St. John's Hospital, now Prairie St. John's.
Herz, a student at North Dakota State University, heard about the plea from a cook or waitress, and immediately drove to Fargo's Island Park neighborhood to help throw sandbags. The levees were 40 feet, a level previously thought "untoppable," leaving no freeboard for the rising floodwater. Two rows of sandbags had been laid, but it was determined they wouldn't be enough, Herz said.
Eventually, Herz worked his way to the top of the dike, the end of the brigade line, and was stacking the heavy bags. He stood at the top of the levee and looked down at the menacing mass of water, eerily close and shimmering in the moonlight.
"It was unnerving and cool and scary," Herz said, the moment still vivid. "You take mind pictures."
It was in the wee hours of April 18. At 3 a.m., the raging Red River crested at 39.72 feet, a new record.
"I just felt this wave of emotion," said Herz, who has returned to NDSU to earn a doctorate in history. "We did it. We conquered this thing."
Bent but not broken
Fargo-Moorhead did, for the most part, conquer the 1997 flood-as it did 12 years later, when an even larger flood struck in 2009 . But certain low-lying areas near the river sustained heavy damage.
About 120 homes in Fargo experienced some level of flood damage in 1997, ranging from minor seepage to extensive damage. Twenty-five homes were considered a total loss. The city spent $5.5 million fighting the flood.
In Moorhead, 117 homes sustained damage, 59 with flooded basements, 42 where sewers backed up, and 16 with flooding on the main floor.
In Fargo, 35.8 miles of emergency barriers were erected, including 21.8 miles of temporary levees and 14 miles of sandbag dikes made from more than 8 million sandbags. Moorhead spent $1.4 million for emergency protection measures, which stretched 1.6 miles.
In the end, the emergency dike Fargo rushed to build on 40th Avenue South to protect against overland flooding was untouched by floodwater.
As for Mark McCourt's plywood dike, it held. Friends with hammer guns came to the rescue, securing the wall to its concrete base.
Still, "It leaked like a sieve," McCourt said. He had to tend to pumps that worked around the clock to keep the river out. When temperatures plunged below zero, pump hoses froze, forcing him to thaw and replace them repeatedly.
"It was a logistic nightmare," he said. "It was pretty much all-consuming."
His home stayed dry, as it did in subsequent floods. But he accepted a buyout in 2007 or 2008, and now that stretch of Woodland Drive is empty of homes, reverted to native grass, with a giant concrete flood wall snaking along the curved street.
McCourt has moved on, but the memories remain. He still observes the anniversary of the 1997 flood with a spring ritual, a celebratory "Crest Fest" barbecue.
The 'flood of the century'
April 1: The flood-the result of melt from a record 117 inches of snow-arrives in Fargo-Moorhead as overland flooding threatens a neighborhood in Dilworth. Sandbagging in Fargo gets off to a slow start.
April 4-5: Three inches of rainfall, Temperatures dropped and the rain turned to freezing rain, then dumped seven inches of snow in a blizzard April 6-7. Power poles are blown down. The river jumps three feet.
April 9: Fargo-Moorhead is jarred by a revised flood crest forecast, raised by a foot.
April 13: The Red River dips 0.2 feet, but residents are advised to remain vigilant. A sign of trouble comes the south; 96 river miles upstream, the Red River at Wahpeton-Breckenridge rests, setting a new record.
April 17: A levee protecting Oak Grove Lutheran High School breaches, causing extensive damage to the school and inundating the neighborhood. Crews race against the clock to build more contingency dikes.
April 18: As volunteers scramble to top off levees near Island Park with sandbags, the river crests at 3 a.m. at 39.72 feet, the worst flood since 1897. (The 2009 flood would surpass the 1997 flood, cresting at 40.84 feet, now the highest recorded.)