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Heavy rains pushed the whole Rainy River system to a record flood stage this past month during a record rainfall. Homes and parks built on low ground in Ranier, east of International Falls on Rainy Lake were especially affected. More than 100 soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard arrived to build dikes around homes on that low stretch of land. John Enger | MPR News

Flooding could be worse but these fixes worked

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John Enger

MPR News 91.3 FM

Bemidji — Minnesota is about as waterlogged as it’s ever been but flooding could be much worse. Record rainfalls have not caused devastating flooding in some of the places traditionally most at risk.

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Money poured into flood prevention over the last decade and half has changed the way Minnesota floods, according to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Capital Investment Director Kent Lokkesmoe.

In 1997 the Red and Minnesota Rivers flooded beyond anything most people had seen before. DNR records show the majority of the state’s counties were declared federal disaster areas that year, but the flood of 1997 gave the hardest hit Minnesota cities, like Moorhead and Grand Forks, N.D. a special reputation for flooding.

Over the years those reputations were born out by more floods, but this year many cities known for their frequent floods are actually staying relatively dry despite record high water. Lokkesmoe said that’s because the same flood that gave places like Fargo-Moorhead, Crookston, Granite Falls and Montevideo their soggy reputations also started a stream of government mitigation dollars.

Since 1997, Lokkesmoe said, about $700 million from federal, state, and municipal coffers shored up flood prone communities across Minnesota.

“The communities that had the most repetitive losses,” he said, “that were at the most risk, that’s were we put the focus.”

The cash was funneled through Minnesota’s Flood Hazard Mitigation Program, building miles of levee and buying out a total of 3,200 flood prone homes. A big chunk of that money, roughly $105 million according to Lokkesmoe went to Moorhead to build levees and buy out 250 homes, but many smaller communities also got assistance.

All the work carried a big price tag, but Lokkesmoe estimates each dollar spent on mitigation will save the state four dollars over the long term.

This year, he said the state is seeing a return on investment.

“The levees are working,” he said.

That’s not to say the whole state is safe from flooding. Lake homes along Rainy Lake near International Falls are barricaded with sandbag dikes against persistent flood waters. Prior Lake residents, south of the twin cities, are also dealing with flooding. This week, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are touring the state making flood damage estimates. So far, more than $14 million in damages have been reported.

In general, Lokkesmoe said the places flooding the worst right now, aren’t generally flood prone, or are too rural to justify the construction of multi-million dollar flooding safeguards.

Many places known for their floods, just aren’t flooding anymore.

Crookston, a city of nearly 8,000 on the Red Lake River 25 miles east of Grand Forks had a big problem in 1997. As the river rose to its highest recorded level crews sandbagged continuously for six weeks.

Public Works Director Pat Kelly led those crews. Nearly 20 years later he’s still got the job and remembers the experience vividly.

“We had to clear snow before we started sandbagging,” he said, “and we didn’t stop sandbagging until the crest in April.”

The city didn’t lose many homes, but Kelly described a sort of community wide “enough with all the sandbagging” attitude in the wake of ‘97. Residents, he said, even support a local $50 to $300 annual per-home flood protection tax.

Last year, the city finished the last of several levee structures stretching seven miles along the river and costing a grand total of $40 million.

That price includes 30 homes which were bought out and demolished. This year the Red Lake River is one of just a few in the state that’s not actually too high. If it were, Kelly said there wouldn’t be a problem.

Today a 1997 flood would require only an afternoon of selective sandbagging. The city wouldn’t even call for volunteers. Not counting the increased property values and improved safety, Kelly said the reprieve from sandbagging was worth $40 million.

Far to the south, Montevideo’s population of roughly 5,000 is also fortified by levees. In all city manager Steve Jones said 2.5 miles of levee runs along sections of the Minnesota and Chippewa Rivers. If not for those levees mostly built in response to 1997 flooding, Jones said the city would be in big trouble.

“If the levees were gone we’d have a third of the town under water.” he said.

Over the last decade and a half, a lot of money was spent to prevent flooding in Montevideo — a combined $25 million by Jones’ best estimates. That was used to replace much of a crumbling temporary levee system constructed in the 1960s. More than 120 homes were also bought out over that period of time.

With current water levels making Montevideo’s top 10 list, Jones said all those homes would be flooded right now. As it is, a few city workers are keeping an eye on things, but everything is okay thanks to some forward thinking flood mitigation.

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