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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
St. Paul District
Public Affairs Office
332 Minnesota St., Suite E1500
St. Paul, MN 55101

Phone: (651) 290-5807
Fax: (651) 290-5752 


Red River Flood of 2009

Published Oct. 28, 2015

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, declared a victory late April 2009 after facing massive flooding in the Red River of the North river valley for more than a month-and-a-half. By the end of the fight, the district had distributed 11.3 million sandbags, 4,201 rolls of plastic and 136 pumps, as well as let 50 contracts, built approximately 70 miles of emergency levee and spent more than $32 million. 

Six basin cities, including Abercrombie, Fargo Lisbon and Valley City in North Dakota and Moorhead and Oakport Township in Minnesota, faced floods of record, yet no city lost more than a few homes. The Corps was part of a large force made up of local, state and federal responders and thousands of volunteers that worked together to make this happen.

The Red River Valley covers 45,000 square miles and occupies substantial portions of North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota and a small portion of northeastern South Dakota. The area is prone to flooding mainly because of geography – the land is exceptionally flat. Additionally, the water flows north. As temperatures in southern portions of the basin warm in the spring, and the snow begins to melt, more and more water accumulates. When the snow melts in the north, even more water is added to the peak as the flow journeys north.

The National Weather Service predicted significant flooding for the basin early in the year after it snowed 23 days there in December, leaving a water content in the snowpack of 170 to 300 percent above normal. Of particular concern was Fargo, North Dakota, a city of around 100,000, which had a 98 percent of chance of exceeding major flood stage at 30 feet and a 6 percent chance of exceeding the last major flood stage, 39.57 feet, in 1997.

Shelly Shafer, the St. Paul District’s emergency manager at the time, said the district began its flood preparations early by hosting flood preparedness workshops with local communities throughout Minnesota and North Dakota, as well as conducted in house training for flood engineers and other responders. Additionally, flood engineers began meeting one-on-one with local emergency managers. The district’s water control section began drawing down valley reservoirs around this time to ensure additional storage would be available for spring runoff.

The flood fight sprang into action early, though, when the NWS both raised its crest predictions and moved the projected crest date forward. The district sent engineers and support staff to its field office in Fargo the week of March 15, and its contractors began building emergency levees throughout the basin. In Fargo, where forecasters upped the prediction to levels more in line with the 1997 flood, the Corps began to build levees to 40 feet.

A little more than a week later, the NWS again raised the projected crests and moved the projected date forward. For Fargo, they predicted a crest of around 40 feet, so engineers began raising the levees to 42 feet. Before they could finish, however, the NWS, once again, raised their prediction to between 40 and 43 feet. With less than two days before the predicted crest, engineers built up all the levees in Fargo and Moorhead, which is directly across the river from Fargo, to 44 feet. In Fargo, this included raising 31 miles of clay and secondary levees, 10 miles of HESCO Bastion Concertainer® secondary levees, and 6.3 miles of sandbag levees. In Moorhead, this included 15.5 miles of clay and secondary levee and 9.2 miles of sandbag levees.

To raise the levees in such a short amount of time, Tim Bertschi, then the St. Paul District’s western area flood engineer, said the flood fighters used a variety of nontraditional flood fighting methods to include not only the HESCO Bastion levees but also Portadam® coffer system. “If we had not used all those methods all at once, we might not have finished in time,” he said. “These methods certainly helped provide flood protection, and we will be reviewing their performance before we make any real solid judgments on them.” 

The river experienced its first crest at 40.82 feet March 28, seven-tenths of a foot higher than the previous flood of record in 1897. The levees didn’t come down, however, since the Red was expected to crest again in a few weeks, Corps engineers and Army National Guardsmen continued to monitor the levees 24 and seven. Then, the NWS predicted a possible second crest of 41 to 43 feet and engineers began building the levees even wider and higher, to a height of 44 feet. 

At the same time, the NWS predicted record flooding for the Sheyenne River, a tributary of the Red in North Dakota. They began building emergency levees in cities along this river to include Valley City and Lisbon.

Although the second crest for Fargo on April 17 ended up being only 33 feet, the Sheyenne crested higher than originally predicted, and Corps’ engineers were raising emergency levees in Valley City and Lisbon up until the crest.

Throughout the flood fight, levee cracks and pipe breakages caused potential emergencies. The spillway of a small, nonfederal dam, Clauson Dam, on a tributary of the Sheyenne began to erode, and the Corps was called upon to assist in preventing the dam from failing and taking out the city of Kathryn, North Dakota, directly downstream from it. “The local engineers for the dam had pretty much given up on getting heavy equipment in to fix the problem, but our guys went in there and immediately began to bring in the heavy stuff,” said Bertschi. 

“The district enhanced its reputation for engineering on the go during this flood fight,” he said. “The red shirts bring a lot of respect, at least in the Red River basin. We have done pretty good things here over the years.”

As to the overall effort, Bertschi said, “We did better than I thought we’d do. We had to do a tremendous amount of work – a lot more work than we had to do in 1997 [when Fargo was also vicariously close to flooding] – and in a lot less time. There was one night there when I thought we for sure had lost Fargo and another night when I thought we’d lost Valley City.”

Besides the ever changing forecasts, the large workload and frantic pace, another challenge included the extreme weather conditions. “We were fighting the flood in a blizzard,” said Bertschi. “Ice and the snow make it extremely hard to work with dirt and sandbags. Then, too, it also makes access to the sites difficult.”

Logistics was another issue. “There was one point where we ran out of equipment,” said Bertschi. “We pretty much were utilizing all the available equipment within 200 miles of the river basin. 

“We had to bring in some contractors from several hundred miles away; and then there were road closures [due to flooding], so we had trouble getting them here,” he said. “I had to work with the governor’s office to get them through the road blocks.”

He added he was very impressed with the efforts of the Corps contractors. “The contractors in this area are second to none,” he said. “They have tremendous skills, and they put themselves in some precarious situations to get the job done.”

Overall, 222 employees from around the Corps participated in the flood fight. “We had a great bunch of skilled people that came out to help,” said Bertschi. “They were putting forth as much effort as if this was their own hometown.

“It was also a great mixture of experienced people and highly skilled inexperienced people,” he added. “It was a million dollar investment for the district in that some of the younger people in the district got a lot of flood fighting experience. I could confidently turn this over to them right now.”