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Northern Red River Valley filling sandbags, cleaning up as flooding impacts region

Kierstin Hurtt, superintendent of the Crystal Public School, said the town was packed with volunteers over the weekend, including local students and first responders from the nearby towns of Hoople and Cavalier.

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Minto firefighters navigate a flooded road near the bridge on U.S. Highway 81 Monday, April 26, 2022.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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CRYSTAL, N.D. — After a recent bout of rain and melting snow caused river levels to rise and overland flooding in the region, some communities in northeast North Dakota are in cleanup mode, while others are sandbagging homes and other buildings.

On Monday, April 25, staff and community members were working to clean up the public school in Crystal, North Dakota, after water from a nearby waterway flooded the boiler room, locker rooms and other underground spaces. There was no class at the 48-student school Monday, and staff were eager to put things back in order to accommodate a prom after party set to be held on Friday.

Kierstin Hurtt, superintendent of the Crystal Public School, said the town was packed with volunteers over the weekend, including local students and first responders from the nearby towns of Hoople and Cavalier.

“We're so lucky to have such an active, supportive school board and the community businesses that came in and helped us,” Hurtt said. “We could not have figured this whole thing out on our own.”

According to the National Weather Service, the town and surrounding areas are under a flood warning until 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

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Hurtt said volunteer crews began sandbagging the school at about 2:30 a.m. Sunday, after having watched the water levels of a river west of the school rise, and approach the building. Monday afternoon, the school was mostly cleaned up, though sandbags remain set up, should the water surge again.

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Valley-Edinburg Elementary School in Crystal, ND, Supt. Kierstin Hurtt is thankful for all the help from the community and surrounding communities in fighting the weekend flood.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Local residents donated the use of a few large dehumidifiers, and several sump pumps were in operation at the school on Monday and fans were set out to help with drying.

Hurtt said she was apprehensive about the possibility of additional rain later this week.

“We’re a little nervous about that,'' she said.

Nearby the school, brothers Jay and Vince Reilly were working to clean away ice from their business, the Corner Bar. They said the bar also took on water, though they got it pumped out. Several homes in Crystal were sandbagged, including the bar, and they said streets were full of water at one point, though it had mostly iced over Monday.

Still, evidence of overland flooding was apparent. A short distance from the bar, heavy equipment was used to dig out three approaches, to let flood water drain more quickly and the bent remains of a culvert sat by a large mound of earth left from removing an approach. To the west of the dug-out approaches, a small herd of cattle stood together around a hay bale, their barn and enclosure made an island by the flood waters.

According to the Reilly brothers dozens of pallets of sandbags were available to anyone who needed them, including other communities.

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Jay, left, and Vince Reilly, owners of the Corner Bar in Crystal, ND, spend Monday, April 25, cleaning up after weekend flooding in the area.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Similar scenes of flooding were found elsewhere in Pembina County, which includes Crystal. Several county roads were blocked off with signs, though when those ran out orange flags affixed to straw bales had to suffice. Fields and ditches in the region were flooded, and chunks of ice rippled on the water, as the wind created small waves. In some cases, the water covered the driveways of local homes.

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The scene was the same to the west in St. Thomas, where some homes were also sandbagged.

Flooding didn’t appear to be much of an issue in Grafton, though in Minto to the south, through which the Forest River flows, a few streets were flooded and people were working to pump out the basements of their sandbagged homes.

And making those sandbags were local students from Minto High School. According to Mark Wilson, volunteer fire chief in Minto, students in grades 9-12 “got volunteered” to help make sandbags at the fire hall.

“I appreciate all their help,” Wilson said. “I was wondering how we were going to get it all done.”

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Kacey Gudajtes joins other Minto high school students filling sandbags Monday, April 25, 2022 at the firehall in Minto.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

In total about 30 students were filling sandbags at the Minto fire station Monday. Firefighters brought the sand into the building by tractor bucket, and the students set to filling the bags and making pallets. Wilson said he didn’t have a goal as to the number of pallets, they were available for anyone who wanted them, and the sandbags disappeared quite quickly once they were filled. He said he was aware of additional sandbag pallets in Crystal, and had a crew ready to pick them up if needed.

Kasey Gudajtes, a 10th grade student helping out, said she was glad for a chance to be out of school.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said. “I volunteered because I wanted to miss school.”

Justin Madsen, a junior, said he was also glad to be out of class, but he knew the value of what he was doing.

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“I know it has got to be gone so I came here to do the work, but getting out of class was a bonus,” Madsen said.

The students rotated in and out of breaks, where they ate pizza donated by a local shop or burgers brought in by a resident.

Not yet touched by the flood waters on Monday, was Oslo, Minnesota, a town that frequently floods to the point where it becomes an island, cut off from other communities. Signs were placed along the bridge that leads into town from Interstate 29, though the bridge had yet to be officially closed Monday afternoon.

Pallets of sandbags were on hand in the town, waiting to be used if necessary.

The National Weather Service has portions of Marshall, Pennington and Polk Counties in Minnesota on a flood warning until 3:45 p.m on Wednesday. Included in that warning are Grand Forks, Griggs, Nelson, Steele and Walsh Counties in North Dakota.

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Minto high-schoolers fill sandbags Monday, April 25, 2022 at the Minto firehall.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Devils Lake Basin

In Devils Lake, flooding has not been as much of an issue. City Engineer Mike Grafsgaard said Highway 2 and all the roadways in the vicinity are still safe to drive.

Grafsgaard attributed it to an ongoing flood protection project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Grafsgaard said some “finishing touches” were just wrapped up to protect the city and the surrounding area from Devils Lake itself, including an additional pump station to help with interior drainage issues.

“Over the course of the last 25 years, the city has been working almost continually with the Corps of Engineers to protect itself from the rising Devils Lake,” Grafsgaard said. “When Devils Lake started to rise in the early 1990s, by the time the mid 1990s came around, the city knew that there was something that had to be done to hold the lake back from flooding certain parts of the city.”

From there, the project cooperative agreement with the United States Army Corps of Engineers started in 1996. Grafsgaard said at this point, it’s a nearly $170 million project.

“That project, based on this last round of work that we completed, is designed to protect the city and the surrounding area by even the highest of lake levels,” Grafsgaard said. “So that protects the city in the bay area immediately adjacent to the city with the flood protection, but there's still many, many acres that are outside our flood protection that can be impacted by increased lake levels.”

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Jaden Magnus holds the door for fellow teacher Daniel Biggers Monday during an in-service day at the school in Crystal following weekend flooding.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Related Topics: FLOODING
Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

Desk: 701-780-1110
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