Sunday, September 25

Extreme Makeover: Flood recovery advice from North Dakota and Minnesota

The Red River winds north through a table-flat valley to form most of the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. It spills from its banks almost every spring, but the high water usually only covers parks and yards. That wasn't the case in the spring of 1997, after record snows buried the region. A blizzard and ice storm struck the first weekend of April, knocking out power to thousands. And the river was only beginning to rise.

I remember watching the televised images of the mounting floodwaters with a sense of disbelief at first. The dikes had never been topped; they were so high it was unthinkable they wouldn't hold. But on a cold April morning, the swollen Red River broke through and topped by more than 2 feet the 52 foot dikes, wiping out the bridge that connected the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota and virtually destroying both cities.

Paired border towns waged their battles against the rising floodwaters: Wahpeton and Breckenridge, Minn., at the river's headwaters, and Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., downstream. None was swamped like Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Most of the homes in the two cities and the business districts were destroyed by the floods. More than 50,000 people were forced to flee.

The flood of 1997 created what was, until Hurricane Katrina, the largest mass exodus in the United States since the Civil War.

Eight years later, with a $400 million state-of-the-art 60 foot floodwall/dike system nearing completion, both cities have made an amazing recovery. And they are eager to give advice and help to Louisiana. In Grand Forks, City Council members are planning to enter a sister-city relationship with one of those ravaged by Katrina.

The consensus among council members is that New Orleans is simply too big and that they ought to set their sights on a city closer in size to Grand Forks, such as Biloxi, Mississippi.

"We had a great little downtown, but the city fathers were thinking too big for their britches, trying to make it Fargo or Minneapolis. I just hope the towns down there don't make the same mistakes we did," observed antique store owner Linda Magness.

Across the river in East Grand Forks, Mayor Lynn Stauss lauds his city as "a poster child for flood relief. Grand Forks got all the attention during the flood, but we wanted the attention for our recovery."

The mayor's words hint at the underlying tension that has long existed between the two cities, which now market themselves to the world as "The Grand Cities." Those tensions played out during the flood recovery, with officials sometimes unable to appeal to disaster officials with a single voice, Stauss said.

"Down there [the Gulf Coast], they've got to learn patience and avoid the resentment and finger-pointing that sometimes went on here," he said. "If they can't speak with one voice, it's going to confuse people and cause them to mistrust their leaders. And if that happens, you'll never gain that trust back."

The sentiment is echoed by his counterparts in Grand Forks. But for now, city officials are holding off on inundating the Gulf Coast with advice, recovery materials and volunteers, again based on their own experiences eight years ago.

Pete Haga, who coordinated volunteer efforts in 1997, said for this disaster: "We're trying to avoid the mistakes we made here. Right after the flood, I'd have people show up to help, but I didn't have anywhere to send them right away. People are calling now, saying they're ready to go, but I tell them to wait until we know what people down there need."

One member of the council has seized on the idea of recycling flood relief money that still flows into the city's coffers. Doug Christensen has proposed funneling $1 million or more in federal block grant funds to the Gulf Coast.

"Someday you'll become the other guy -- you just don't know when," he said. "Now that we've been that other guy, we have the opportunity to help the new other guy."

Not to strike a sour note, and with the caveat that I haven't studied and compared the technical information about the Louisiana and Red River flood control systems. But the $400 million pricetag for the Red River "state-of-the-art" dike/floodwall system (60 feet high!) prompts Pundita to question whether many billions of dollars are needed to upgrade the Louisiana flood system -- a figure I've often heard mentioned since Katrina struck.

The advice to remake New Orleans into a smaller city could save much money and provide realistic flood protection during the decades it would take to restore the natural flood protection to the land.

The question, however, is how to prevent the region from continuing to sink. There is an inherent conflict between levees and salvaging the valuable silt that the Mississippi spews during floods. Without the silt, it seems the only solution is to keep building higher and higher levees and floodwalls -- while the land on which New Orleans rests continues to sink lower and lower.

There should be an engineering solution -- there's always an engineering solution -- that allows the levees to exist on better terms with the river's natural land reclamation system. The solution could be where the "many billions" would reside but one has to be found and implemented.

With the exception of my observations this post is a compilation of accounts taken from a September 2005 Star Tribune article by Bob Von Sternberg with additional quotes from a 2002 Associated Press/USA Today report . The articles present detail on the recovery and the planning behind it.

Also, a hat tip to ABC World News for their Sunday segment on the recovery from the 1997 flood (and the news that the new Red River flood control system is "state-of-the-art").

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