The St. Paul District faced one of its biggest challenges ever when, in the timeframe of around six weeks in 1997, it simultaneously fought floods in three river basins – the Red, the Minnesota and the Mississippi.
Most of the flooding occurred along the Red River of the North with the majority of locations along this river experiencing record flooding. During its peak flows, the width of the Red River reached an average of seven to 10 miles. The district’s response began with pre-planning in the early winter months of 1997 and continued throughout the April and May flooding and on through recovery, lasting well over a year. It involved the efforts of almost all district employees and included providing advance measures, and/or emergency response in 47 communities and administrating more than $18.4 million in both advance construction and disaster recovery contracts.1
By the time the waters receded, more than 2,200 square miles of Minnesota and North Dakota – an area roughly the size of the state of Delaware – experienced flooding and around 70,000 residents had had to evacuate their homes.2 Ultimately, the event caused more than $4 billion in damages, $3.6 billion in the Grand Forks, North Dakota, area alone, and an immeasurable amount of heartache.3
More than 140 Corps’ employees deployed to the field, around 40 of which came from outside the district. At the peak of the fight, 84 of these people were deployed at the same time.4
And although Grand Forks and the Minnesota communities of East Grand Forks and Ada, as well as portions of Breckenridge, flooded, the contributions of district employees and the protection provided by permanent Corps’ flood projects prevented damage to more than 40 communities. District economists estimated that, overall, an additional $325 million in damage was prevented.5
Col. J.M. (Mike) Wonsik, then the St. Paul District’s commander, wrote in the after-action report that this success was the result of the district staff’s “concern for the people under threat and their willingness to extend themselves to their limits to win the fight.”6
Geography and geology boost flooding
Scott Jutila, a hydraulics engineer, served as a flood reconnaissance engineer in 1997 and has since become the lead reconnaissance engineer for the Red River of the North. He said what makes the Red so prone to flooding is both its “geography” and its “geology.”
The valley is the result of the last ice age, he explained. The slope of the glacial plain goes east to west about one to three feet per mile – and, going north from Grand Forks to Canada, the slope becomes even milder. Essentially, the land is flat, and there is no where for the water to go once the river bed is full.
As temperatures in the southern portions of the basin warm in the spring and the snow begins to melt, more and more water accumulates. Then, the water flows northward. When the snow melts in the north, more water is added to the peak as it continues to flow north. If the river is still frozen, the higher flows create ice jams, which, in turn, can act as temporary dams.
To describe what happens in the Red River Valley in the spring, Ed Eaton, a senior hydraulics engineer and former chief of water control in 1997, said, “There are section roads bounding nearly every square mile in the valley, and the boundaries of each section road are all connected with dikes and culverts. These section roads act as dikes to hold back the melt waters in each section. At each road intersection, culverts with flap-gates are provided to allow melt waters to run off. Typically, what happens is the ice melts in the sections, and the flap gates are usually stuck early in the flood, so the water doesn’t move ... then when the flap gates open up, it just kind of all lets loose.”
Jutila, Eaton and the rest of the district’s hydraulic engineers and hydrologists knew early that there would be serious flooding with the spring melt because of the wet fall and the severe winter. Additionally, early reconnaissance work completed by the district’s water control section indicated that this flooding would be severe.
Eight blizzards bury Red River Valley
The Red River Valley experienced no less than eight blizzards that winter. These storms, named Andy, Betty, Christopher, Doris, Elmo, Franzi, Gust and Hannah, dumped 117 inches of snow in Fargo, North Dakota, and 98 inches in Grand Forks.7
Snow surveys in February showed exceptionally high water content in the snow pack with the highest amount being in the southern end of the Red River Basin – the headwaters to the Lake Traverse area. Specifically, in the Lake Traverse region, the water content of the snow pack averaged in the 10 to 13-inch range. From Fargo northward, it averaged around 5 to 6 inches.
Eaton, now retired, explained that because of the flatness of the ground, only three inches of snowpack with water content can produce a good flood in the valley. “At the time, I’d never seen such high snow water contents as were out there in 1997,” said Eaton.
The residents in the region remember the winter for its severity. Grand Forks resident Mark Krenelka, who became a Corps’ construction representative in 2002, described it as “miserable.” He said it got to the point where there was no place to shovel all the snow. To clean off his driveway, he had to have a friend from work clean it with a backhoe.
Tim Bertschi, Fargo area resident and then western area office resident engineer – now retired, remembered, “Because of the blizzards, I had to ask for admin leave every other Wednesday for months. It got to be almost a joke.”
That winter, due to low visibility and snow plowing, Interstate 29 closed for 18 days and U.S. Highway 2 for 17. In January, the North Dakota governor activated the National Guard to remove snow off the major roads.8 The snow drifts reached rooftops and collapsed power lines and even roofs.
And then it was cold. Wind gusts averaged 30 miles per hour and wind chills averaged 50 below. At least five deaths resulted from the extreme temperatures.9
Valentine’s Day card: severe flooding
On Valentine’s Day, the National Weather Service issued its first forecast for the Red River Valley, calling for severe flooding, and the district began making its official preparations. It held a number of early meetings in late February and early March to include hosting a flood exercise on March 13.10
Bertschi, who served as the valley’s flood engineer then and now, said, “Normally only the flood engineer will make contact with the local communities and [he or she] will usually do so right before runoff begins.”
In 1997, however, because of the expected severity of the floods, the sub-engineers visited with local officials and visited them early. “From about late February or early March, most of us became full-time flood responders,” said Bertschi. “In comparison, in 2006, we started responding two days before the flood.”
At one point, he remembered, he had the opportunity to talk with the then district chief of engineers and flood executive officer, Bob Post, now deceased, and they discussed the possibility of something overwhelming happening. “We kind of agreed that this might be one of those situations where we needed to make sure that no loss of life came into play,” he said. “We needed to make sure at the time that everybody knew this would be something we’d never seen before…
“But we went about our business kind of normal, because it had been drilled over and over into us that there’d never been a flood fight that we couldn’t handle,” he continued. “Once that water started running, and we ran into storms, and then the National Weather Service forecast changed dramatically, then it became really difficult to do. Late March, early April [of 1997], it became continued chaos.”
Advance measures begin earlier than normal
The district officially opened its emergency operations center March 7. It requested approval from Corps’ headquarters to begin advance measures March 13 and received authorization the next day. To do this so far in advance of the event, said Eaton, is unusual and used only in extreme circumstances.
Jutila spent mid-March assisting in designing advance measure levees before departing for the valley at the end of the month. To do this, he and his co-workers first had to come up with an elevation for the levees, which included looking at the NWS forecasts and flood insurance studies to estimate what the flood profiles would be. The profiles were then used to determine the height of the levees. As an added safety factor, they added two to three feet of freeboard.
The sub-engineers took these designs with them to the field and began building levees. The problem, said Jutila, was that the forecasts kept rising. “We put those levees in place,” he said, “but most … had to be raised above the initial design as the predictions went up.”
Emergency operations jumps ahead of advance measures
By March 17, Roland Hamborg, project management now retired, was on his way to Fargo, North Dakota, where the district set up its main field emergency operations center. Smaller field offices were also opened in Grand Forks, North Dakota; Montevideo, Minnesota; and Mankato, Minnesota.
Hamborg, then the operation’s environmental review coordinator, was assigned to the Fargo emergency operations center as the office manager. His role included managing all the contracts. “I was a liaison between the folks in the field setting up the contracts and the people in the district office who were writing the contracts and awarding them,” he said.
When Hamborg arrived in Fargo, snow still covered the ground. “The first thing they had to do was clean a number of feet of snow off the areas that they wanted to construct levees on,” he said. “Of course, the ground was still frozen.”
From late March to April 9, the district initiated 22 advance measure contracts in communities along the Red and its tributaries – all the way from Wahpeton, North Dakota, to Pembina, North Dakota, and along the Minnesota River from Appleton, Minnesota, to Granite Falls, Minnesota. But before the advance measures were all in place, emergency operations were initiated in several communities, beginning with Grand Forks and East Grand Forks on March 26. And before most of these contracts could be finished, Blizzard Hannah, which occurred on April 4-6, stopped mostly everything in its tracks.
To those on the ground, there didn’t appear to be a difference between advance measures and emergency operations, the contracts just kind of blended. “I mean pretty soon the snow began to melt and the water began to come up a bit,” said Hamborg. “It was early April, and we had a major switch-over, but the real significance was funding, really, as far as I was concerned.
“We anticipated being able to follow the flood from the south end of the valley to the north and continuing to move our management office with the flood … but it didn’t happen that way. It just kind of all crested in a couple of days, and the whole thing just shot up,” he continued. “It was all happening across the valley at once.”
Red River Basin: water everywhere
As the temperatures began to rise, Jutila left for Fargo, where he and Jim Murphy served as one of the three reconnaissance teams in place to monitor the changing conditions. Every day, they checked different gauges and set up temporary water marks or reference points to determine if there were any changes. They reported the data they collected to the water control folks in the emergency operations center, the flood engineers throughout the valley and the NWS.
Jutila and Murphy spent most of their time south of Fargo, monitoring Lake Traverse and the areas upstream of Fargo. Lake Traverse had more water in it than ever before. It reached the top of the spillway design pool elevation, and there were concerns of White Rock Dam overtopping. The district fully opened the gates, which prior to 1997 had never been done before.
“We drove, I think, over ten thousand miles in those 30 days,” he said. “The event developed slowly. At first, all you could see was snow, a lot of snow, and then … the ice was melting, and all you could see was water everywhere.”
Blizzard Hannah knocks out power
When Blizzard Hannah hit, they were on the road, coming back from Lake Traverse. The forecast that morning called for two to three inches of rain. “You couldn’t see very far in front of you,” he said. “There were roads we had to turn back on ‘cause [they]…were starting to overtop.”
The rain turned into freezing rain and pelted everything with ice, but they made it back to Fargo and spent that next day stuck in their hotel.
For those working further north, it was worse. Dick Otto, natural resource manager now retired, was serving as a sub-area engineer in Pembina County in North Dakota. As the rain froze, he said, “the power lines got heavy with ice and then it snowed. The power lines just snapped and went down. The whole city [of Drayton, Minnesota,] and surrounding area was without power.
“We couldn’t do too much work on the levees then because of the blizzard, so we sat in a hotel with no power, no food, for two or three days,” he continued. “We had snacks from the vending machine, and there was a gas station down the road with water, pop and gas station food – junk food, mostly junk food.”
By the end of the blizzard, more than 300,000 residents were left without power. What’s worse, seven more inches of snow fell in the northern half of the basin. Several days later, the NWS raised its crest prediction.11
Snow melts quickly throughout basin
What happened, said Eaton, is that the melt had started in the valley around the Lake Traverse area late March, and the water was moving north towards Fargo when Blizzard Hannah hit. “What that did was it got cold, real cold. It shut off the melt – stopped it in its tracks,” he said. “However, it didn’t stop the water that was already in the system south of Fargo that was moving northward.
“It didn’t really start warming up in the valley until around the twelfth to fifteenth of April. When it did warm, it warmed up very quickly,” he continued. “We had all the water that had been moving northward from the early melt and the additional melt water was added to that.
“It was more of a basin-wide warm up, so the water got going up in the Grand Forks area as well, before the Fargo area and Lake Traverse water had a chance to get there,” he explained. “Probably the thing that was most difficult was the timing of the melt, because you had an initial melt, intervening cold snap, followed by a rapid warm up.”
Flooding in Minnesota River basin builds in successive peaks
Most of the district’s responders remembered Hannah as being the beginning of a peak that didn’t end for weeks. At the beginning of the storm, the Wild Rice River broke out of it banks east of Ada, Minnesota, and overland flow overtopped sandbag levees and flooded that community.12
A day later, the Minnesota River at Montevideo, Minnesota, crested at a record stage of around 24 feet – only inches away from the top of the emergency levees. The city had already partly flooded by the time it called on the Corps for help, only a few days before Hannah.13
Contracts had been put in place the day before the storm to build three emergency levees. Bonnie Greenleaf, project management, was there assisting the city. She said they worked right through the rain and snow, only stopping for an hour when visibility was too poor to drive.
At the same time, Wahpeton, North Dakota, and Breckenridge, Minnesota, experienced their first crest from the Ottertail River, just as Matt Bray and Tim Grundhoffer, both from engineering, were finishing up their emergency levees. The sewer began to plug up, though, and then a portion of the northern levee was breached. Flood water inundated the north end of Breckenridge.
The crests along the Minnesota River continued on through mid-April, about the same time the main stem of the Red began to reach its peak and the Mississippi began to rise.
Floods crest back-to-back in three cities
“If it were a normal flood, it would have taken around five days after the Red crested in Wahpeton for it to crest in Fargo, and than another eight before it crested in Grand Forks,” said Bertschi. “Instead, all three cities crested within days of each other.
Wahpeton and Breckenridge experienced their second crest April 15, and this time the south side of Breckenridge was inundated by overland flooding.
It only took three days for the crest to reach Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota, and in those three days, every piece of heavy construction equipment in the area, including those pieces owned by the North Dakota National Guard and the Department of Transportation, was running 24 hours a day, causing a “virtual gridlock” on the streets.14
“Fargo was precariously close to being lost,” said Bertschi. It crested April 18 at a record stage of 39.6 feet. It crested right about the same time that district staff working in Grand Forks found cracks in the Lincoln Park levee.15
By 8 a.m. that day, that neighborhood was flooding and the Riverside and Central Park neighborhoods were being evacuated. That afternoon, a dike in East Grand Forks broke and flooding occurred in The Point area.
By noon April 20, around 50 percent of Grand Forks and most of East Grand Forks were flooded. The river didn’t crest until two days later, reaching a record stage of 54.35 feet.16
‘There are people out there ... giving it their all’
At this point in the battle, said Bertschi, “everybody was on 24 hours. There were shifts for everyone. The EOC was going 24 hours.
“We had many people coming out [to help], thinking they’d be doing ‘X’ and were assigned to do something else,” he continued. “Lori Taylor, [engineering, now retired,] and some others were coming out to do some survey work; by the end of the day, they were out doing construction inspections and ended up staying a couple of weeks.”
Hamborg said, “Everybody worked hard for long hours. I usually got to the office at about 5:30 [a.m.] … I was lucky if I ever beat Tim Bertschi there. It seemed like he lived there.”
At the district office, things were just as busy. “We were looking at data collection platform river gage data that was being sent in via satellite. We were looking at the river elevation points from hour to hour, looking at trends in the river,” said Eaton. “We were pulling out hydrographs of historic floods in the Grand Forks area and trying to make judgments using basic hydrology to be able to provide our field people with the best information we could.”
Despite best efforts, Grand Forks and East Grand Forks flood
“The day Grand Forks and East Grand Forks flooded was a miserable day,” said Hamborg. “When you work hard, you expect success.”
Bertschi agreed. “It emotionally really hits you hard, and you really take it personally,” he said. “I think it affects, actually, this whole district, because I think the whole district takes a lot of pride in what they do.”
The flood fight continued, though, along the Red until it reached the Canadian border, culminating with the crest in Pembina April 26. The rest of the communities along the Red were successfully protected by the efforts of the district, the communities and thousands of volunteer sandbaggers.
Then, the battle moved on to the Mississippi Valley with the district assisting its namesake city, St. Paul, Minnesota, and its operations staff sandbagging its own facilities along the river.
At the same time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency requested assistance in providing disaster relief to the affected communities, and district staff began helping the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks by providing clean drinking water and power to its citizens and temporary housing for its displaced residents, picking up debris, demolishing homes and cleaning up the sanitary and storm sewers through the affected areas in Minnesota and North Dakota.17
These efforts continued on into November. It took another year or two to close out the books.
Overall, Hamborg said, the experience made him realize the “tremendous human resource,” available in the district. “There are people out there just giving it their all, working ungodly hours, doing everything possible to save those communities, and the majority of them were saved,” he said. “It just made you very proud of this district, the individuals in it, what the Corps could accomplish when nature was against it. I am just very proud to be a part of this group.”
Flood reduction projects authorized
To this day, the flood has had an impact on district business. Since 1997, the district has continued to work with numerous communities in the basin to assist them in better defending themselves against a flood of similar scale. It has begun constructing six flood damage reduction projects in the Red River Valley to include the nearly completed $400 million project in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and the halfway completed $33 million project in Wahpeton and Breckenridge. In addition, it is currently studying a potential six more.
– Footnotes –
1 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul District, Spring Flood 1997: Red River of the North, Minnesota River, and Mississippi River After Action Report
(St. Paul, Minn.: April 1998), 2 and 17.
2 Peter Verstegen, “District puts in her clean effort against the flood of ’97,” Crosscurrents, Summer 1997, 1 and 6.
3 U.S. Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service,
Service Assessment and Hydraulic Analysis: Red River of the North 1997 Floods (Silver Spring, Md.: August 1998), preface.
4 The district’s largest emergency response outside of its own boundaries was Hurricane Katrina, which began in August 2005 and continues to this day.
5 Corps of Engineers, After Action Report, 16-17.
6 lbid, 17.
7 Ibid, 1; Ryan Bakken, Come Hell and High Water (Grand Forks, N.D.: Grand Forks Herald, Inc., a division of Knight-Ridder, Inc.), 12.
8 Ibid, 11 and 21.
9 Ibid, 11.
10 Ken Gardner, “District prepares for potential spring flooding,” Crosscurrents, March 1997, 2.
11 Ibid, 14 and 29.
12 Corps of Engineers, After Action Report, 3.
13 Ibid, 7.
14 Ibid, 8.
15 Ibid, 8 and 9.
16 Bakken, Come Hell and High Water, 33 and 38.
17 Peter Verstegen, “Red River recovery mission nearly completed,” Crosscurrents, October 1997, 1.