Oakport no longer an island
Rollie Johnson sat on a chair on his back porch, enjoying one of the first spring-like days of the year. "Ninety-nine percent of life is great," the Oakport Township resident said. But five years ago this month, Johnson was in a very different mi...
Rollie Johnson sat on a chair on his back porch, enjoying one of the first spring-like days of the year.
"Ninety-nine percent of life is great," the Oakport Township resident said.
But five years ago this month, Johnson was in a very different mindset.
The flood of 1997 had turned his house into an island. His deck was a dock. He spent his days wading waist-high through freezing water, shoring up a failing dike that was protecting his home.
Nearly 150 homes in the township located just north of Moorhead were damaged and 200 were isolated at a cost of $3.7 million.
Jim Bjorge lost everything.
"The dike broke in one place and within five minutes the basement was flooded and water went 2 inches up on the first floor," he said.
The flood caused so much damage that Bjorge had to almost completely renovate his home.
For every sad story there were others that told of hope and resilience.
Oakport resident Greg Anderson remembers going to console a neighbor whose house sustained major flood damage.
The man was piling wrecked belongings into a truck when Anderson approached.
"He said, 'My wife has been hauling this stuff from house to house for years, and I can finally get rid of some of it,' " recalls Anderson.
Residents used humor as a coping mechanism.
Anderson celebrated his wife's birthday by hosting a driveway barbecue. He considered throwing a beach party using leftover sand to complement the floodwater surrounding his house.
There were countless acts of kindness.
Neighbors came to Johnson's aid when he needed to quickly build a dike.
He had just returned from a 10-day service trip to Mexico and found all of the neighborhood homes -- except his -- barricaded.
"I hadn't done a thing," he said. "It put me in panic mode."
Oakport residents knew a major flood was on the way.
Officials held informational meetings on how to build dikes and plug drains well before the murky waters of the Red turned the township's residential area into a sea of mayhem.
"There was very good community teamwork," Johnson said. "We'd help each other out."
While countless hours were spent preparing for the flood, residents learned a difficult truth. "Nobody really knew what a 39-foot river would do," Anderson said.
As river waters swelled, the anguish began. Would the dike hold? What happens if it doesn't? Was enough done?
Johnson remembers the day he hit breaking point.
After weeks of torturing himself with similar questions, he remembered calling a friend in tears.
"We were crying on the phone together wanting to give up," Johnson said. "But we never did."
His friend, Dale Zimprich, Fargo, told Johnson to paddle his canoe into town for the afternoon. Zimprich would keep watch of Johnson's dike and make sure all equipment was running properly.
Johnson took the opportunity to stock up on junk food and movies. He came back refreshed and ready to fight on.
Bjorge's fight ended early.
A neighbor came over with a backhoe and loader and built a huge earthen dike. But the Red was simply too strong.
"It was holding fairly well for several days, but the (river level) estimates kept going up," the retired pastor of First Lutheran Church of Fargo said. "There were a few places that it leaked a bit. The seepage starts, and it gets a little larger -- and a little larger -- and then it eventually gives way. We were out for five months."
Since landscaping and renovating his home, Bjorge feels his property is better prepared to handle flooding. But he still watches the forecast carefully.
"Once you have a flood like 1997, you watch the snowfall and the depth of it quite closely," he said. "I enjoy snow. I just don't enjoy it here anymore."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Baird at (701) 241-5535