From sandbags to home removals, cities prepare for floods again

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2011 - 10:17 PM

From Hallock to Hastings, Minnesota communities are getting ready for high water.

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One of several houses being moved from the flood area in Moorhead. They’re now sitting on an empty lot just south of the Red River Valley city.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Ice is still on the rivers, but the flood fight is on.

With near-historic crests predicted for the third year in a row, people along the state's flood-prone waterways are sandbagging, strengthening their defenses, and watching with confidence, wariness and weariness.

Fargo-Moorhead, the epicenter of recent flood fights, have both declared states of emergency. On Monday, Fargo will launch a drive to fill 3 million sandbags to hold off the Red River in North Dakota.

Along the Minnesota, the Mississippi, the St. Croix, and even along tributary creeks, communities are buying sandbags, hiring levee builders, planning for volunteers and prodding residents to buy flood insurance.

On Friday, Gov. Mark Dayton joined U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and other state and federal officials at flood forums in Crookston and Moorhead to discuss the spring flood outlook.

"We think with conditions the way they are, it's going to be pretty serious," said Tom Richels, retired Wilkin County highway engineer who is this year's flood manager for the county just south of Moorhead, where the Otter Tail and the Bois de Sioux rivers join to form the Red.

In the metro area, the Minnehaha Creek and Nine Mile Creek Watershed Districts are using detailed computer models for the first time to issue flood forecasts. Their advice to cities and residents along the two creeks and in low-lying areas around Lake Minnetonka: Prepare for high water.

Towering snowbanks combined with high groundwater levels mean "things are getting set up for a perfect storm this spring when it comes to flooding," said Eric Evenson, Minnehaha Creek Watershed District Administrator. A lot will depend on how the spring unfolds, but "if you live in low-lying areas, if you have had flooding in the past, then you are in trouble," Evenson said.

Wilkin County, where several roads have been under frozen floodwater since December, is buying 50,000 sandbags. St. Paul has several thousand sandbags in storage, left over from last fall's road flooding, but is buying 75,000 more. Stillwater, expecting the St. Croix River to be backed up by high flow along the Mississippi about 20 miles downstream, expects to need 100,000 -- twice what it used last year. So does Granite Falls, far upstream on the Minnesota. Otter Tail County -- where the Otter Tail River begins in an area dotted with lakes that have been brimful for several years -- is ordering 300,000 to protect mostly lakeshore properties.

In Fargo, city engineer Mark Bittner said he expects hundreds of volunteers and city workers will be able to fill 3 million bags in about a month. Last year's flooding hit in mid-March. "Three years in a row -- it's just wearing us down," Bittner said. Asked if the first day of sandbagging Monday is a sort of holiday he marks on his calendar, Bittner added, "I'd call it a helliday."

After a wet fall, snow began layering up across Minnesota in early November. Without any thaw since then, that snow lies beneath the winter's extraordinary snowfall, still more than a foot deep across much of the state, and more than 2 feet deep in southwestern Minnesota. It's wet snow, too, holding 5 to 6 inches of water. Snow with 4 to 5 inches of water covers much of the eastern Dakotas.

It's become a familiar scenario, particularly across western Minnesota, where rain and snowfall since the early 1990s has far exceeded long-established normals. The result has been prodigious flooding in 1997, 2001, 2006, 2009 and 2010.

Easing the strain somewhat is the fact that most flood-prone cities have removed hundreds of homes from flood plains, built up permanent levees, and installed other flood-control measures. So even if another flood comes, they're facing less potential damage.

Removing homes

In Moorhead, for example, the city has removed more than 100 flood-vulnerable houses just since 2009, said City Manager Michael Redlinger. Many of those had commanded the highest prices in town soon after they were built along the Red River in the dry 1960s and 1970s. The final 18 were bought out when $3 million in DNR money became suddenly available in January. The buyouts and levee extensions, Redlinger said, mean the city will need about half the sandbags this year than it did in 2009.

Similarly, of 135 homes flooded in Montevideo in 1997, only 21 are left. The city is in the middle of a three-year levee rebuilding project that includes raising Hwy. 212, which was closed last year for several weeks. Granite Falls has removed houses, built a new city hall on higher ground and has plans to build a new water treatment plant.

"When [flooding] becomes so repetitious, you've got to approach it looking for more long-term solutions, instead of just reacting," said Granite Falls City Manager Bill Lavin.

Just over two weeks ago, after thinking about it for 19 hours, Moorhead realtor Bruce Johnson and his wife, Vikki, agreed to sell the home they'd lived in since 1996 to the city, which had just received the DNR buyout money. They have until Feb. 28 to clear out; its next occupant will likely be floodwaters. "It's the third year in a row, and my wife finally said, 'Enough is enough,' "Johnson said. "Everybody was just kind of thinking, 'Surely it can't happen again.' But it looks like more of a consistent pattern than not. Sellers are more readily accepting of the idea now that maybe we're not supposed to be living here."

The biggest flood undertaking has yet to begin. That is a diversion channel that would steer water around Fargo-Moorhead, a proposal that is about a year away from getting approval and at least a decade from reality. Now carrying a price tag of about $1.45 billion, the project is being redesigned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after communities downstream complained that the original plan would wash them out. The federal government would pick up $788 million of that, and Minnesota and North Dakota would split the rest. The cost estimate is preliminary; it could change during the design and approval process.

For now, officials and residents across Minnesota are watching the forecasts, hoping for a slow warm-up with cool nights, and little snow or rain. Those conditions would lead to a gradual thaw and less-disruptive flooding. The next flooding outlook from the North Central River Forecast Center is scheduled to be released next Thursday.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646 Staff writer Laurie Blake contributed to this report.

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