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Flood protection system gives Grand Forks security, but expert says flooding is a possibility

GRAND FORKS -- Steve Gander has lived through a handful of major floods in the Grand Forks area, including the record 1997 Red River flood that decimated the two communities bordering the sleepy river.

Stacks of temporary flood wall pieces stored away in a public works garage in Grand Forks. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
Stacks of temporary flood wall pieces stored away in a public works garage in Grand Forks. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS - Steve Gander has lived through a handful of major floods in the Grand Forks area, including the record 1997 Red River flood that decimated the two communities bordering the sleepy river.

But two decades later, Gander isn't concerned about another similar disaster.

"I probably have about as much worry about the repeat, massive flood through our community as I (worry about) a piano falling on my head," the incoming mayor of East Grand Forks said.

The 1997 flood, often referred to simply as "The Flood" by locals, was disastrous enough that some believed Grand Forks and East Grand Forks would simply die off, Gander said. But it also resulted in the construction of a massive flood protection project that gives people like Gander confidence the two cities could fight off another major flood.

So far, they've been right. Historically high river crests in recent years have been quelled without the same efforts of past flood fights, when residents rallied to fill sandbags to block the rising waters from reaching their homes.

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But could Grand Forks be flooded again? Greg Gust, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, said it's "physically possible" there would be a large enough flood to overwhelm the protection system in place today. That would depend on a number of factors, including the timing of crests from the Red Lake and the Red rivers, which meet just south of DeMers Avenue, as well as the amount of local rainfall, he said.

"Those things are not way outside the line of reason," Gust said.

Officials from the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, however, appear comfortable with the level of protection the city now has.

Mark Walker, Grand Forks' assistant city engineer, said the city's flood protection system was designed to handle a repeat of the 1997 flood. It also accounts for some "uncertainty," waves and ice blockage that could come into play, he said.

"Could it handle something greater? Yeah, it could," Walker said. "But the higher you get, the more concerning it would be that you're getting closer to the tops of the levees."

The top of the Grand Forks levee is almost 6 feet above the record river crest of about 54 feet set April 22, 1997, and the the top of the floodwalls are almost 9 feet above that level. A Grand Forks fact sheet said the city could successfully fight a 500-year flood by adding clay on the top of the levees.

Ken Vein, who was Grand Forks' engineer and public works director during the flood and who now is a Grand Forks City Council member, said there's a "night-and-day" difference between the protection in place today and before the flood. Residents today are "far less concerned" about the possibility of a flood than they were in the past, he said.

"We've had some floods of significance where people haven't even realized it's going on," Vein said.

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'Built to flood'

On April 18, 1997, Grand Forks ordered the evacuation of the Lincoln Park neighborhood as "boils" appeared in the levee. Riverside and Central Park neighborhoods also were evacuated that day, as was the Point in East Grand Forks after the levee there was breached.

The Red River continued to rise for a few days, ultimately cresting at a record 54.35 feet, 4 feet higher than the previous record reached 100 years before. News reports pegged the damage to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks at about $2 billion.

But the seeds of that disaster were planted months before.

"It generally takes more than one year to produce a really big flood," Gust said. "It's usually the year before that has set the stage by having so much excess water in the system."

A recent flood plan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency states that the Red River Valley has the greatest potential for a catastrophic flooding when a number of factors are in place: greater than normal liquid precipitation in September and October, deep frost penetration before the first major snow, greater than normal snowfall in the winter, below normal temperatures in March and early April followed by rapid warming, and greater than normal liquid precipitation during the spring snowmelt.

Between September 1996 and April 1997, more than 200 percent of normal snowfall was observed over most of North Dakota, western Minnesota and northeastern South Dakota, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which also described an "abnormal thaw" as a contributing factor to the flood.

But there are some inherent characteristics of the Red River itself that leads to consistent flooding. It's one of the few rivers in the U.S. that flows directly north, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That, in junction with the basin's flatness and the shallow river channel, means the timing of the spring thaw and snowmelt can "greatly aggravate flooding," the USGS said.

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"Snow in the headwaters of the Red River basin begins to melt first, when areas downstream remain largely frozen," a USGS report said. "This melt pattern can cause ice jams to form, and substantial backwater can occur as flow moves north toward the ice jams and frozen river-channel ice."

Recent history has shown the river to be especially flood-prone. Six of the 10 highest river crests at Grand Forks occurred between 1996 and 2011, according to the National Weather Service.

"This valley is built to flood," Gust said.

The penchant for springtime disasters contrasts with the natural beauty the river offers. Gander called it "a little piece of wilderness running through your town" that provides its residents with plenty of recreational opportunities.

"It was almost like an old friendly dog that sat at your feet, but then one day it stood up and bit you," he said. "But many of us said, 'We love this community, we love this area, and if we sort of tame this river, we can turn it back into a friend, an asset.'"

'No concern'

Pat Grinde lives just down the street from a grassy hillside that separates her neighborhood from the Red River, near Riverside Park on Grand Forks' north side.

It was two decades ago that the Red River flood left an inch of water in the main floor of her home. But now she says she never worries about the possibility of another flood. She pointed to the system of levees, floodwalls and water pumps protecting her neighborhood and the rest of the city from such a disaster.

"I have absolutely no concern about the river ever topping the system that they've got here in Grand Forks," she said.

Some pieces of that flood protection system stay largely out of the public eye. In a storage garage near the Grand Forks Public Works facility, stacks of aluminum beams that make up temporary floodwalls at road crossings sit ready to be erected.

Across town, a cavernous well sits under the flood pumping station on North Third Street. In the event of a flood, that facility pumps excess water out of the city's stormwater system over the levee.

Adjacent to that station sits a grassy levee connected to a concrete floodwall. On the east side of that barrier, runners and bikers often can be spotted on the Greenway. On the west side, a row of homes sit across the street, the wall blocking their view of the Red River.

The $409 million Army Corps of Engineers project, almost half of which was paid for by the federal government, includes miles of levees and floodwalls in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, along with almost two dozen pump stations and a diversion channel in each city, according to officials from both sides of the river.

A city of Grand Forks fact sheet states the levees are 60 feet above the river gauge-the theoretical bottom of the river-and the walls are 3 feet higher than that. Jason Stordahl, East Grand Forks' public works director, said they are protected to 60 feet.

Gander recalled the flood of 1979, when the water reached 48.8 feet, as a time that "heroic efforts" helped save the town. Thirty years later, the river crested at about the same level, but Gander remembers going home and sleeping "like a baby" instead of spending long hours hauling sandbags.

"We were good at fighting floods," Vein said. "I think after 20 years, people have kind of gotten used to the new normal."

Historic crests, Red River at Grand Forks/East Grand Forks

1. 54.35 feet on April 22, 1997

2. 50.20 feet on April 10, 1897

3. 49.86 feet on April 14, 2011

4. 49.33 feet on April 1, 2009

5. 48.81 feet on April 26, 1979

6. 48 feet on April 18, 1882

7. 47.93 feet on April 6, 2006

8. 46.09 feet on March 20, 2010

9. 45.93 feet on April 21, 1996

10. 45.73 feet on April 11, 1978

Related Topics: STEVE GANDER1997 FLOOD
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