It has been a non-event. That’s what construction of a dike that provides up to 60 feet of protection will do. For the people of East Grand forks, the flood of 2019, which ranks as the eighth highest in history (46.87 feet), hardly got anyone’s real attention. As a precaution, though, city workers did put the first few planks in place on the “invisible dike” walls. Two of the three bridges were closed. So were a couple of streets.
But outside of the inconvenience of having all inter-city traffic go through the Kennedy Bridge, the only bridge that stayed open, there was nothing to the flood of 2019 beyond a few delays.
Still, with what happened in 1997 back on their minds, a few people went out and bought flood insurance. The memories still haunt us.
For me, that lasting 1997 experience — now 22 years ago — centers on the day (April 18, 1997) the dike broke on the Point. Separated from most of East Grand Forks by the Red Lake River, that south-end neighborhood is where we lived and still do.
Working from the flood headquarters at City Hall that day, I had been delivering radio batteries needed to maintain communication with the different sandbagging crews around town. In that role, I saw firsthand the river lapping at the top of the sandbag diking in one area along with the many, many men, women and kids who were placing thousands and thousands of bags.
Early in the afternoon on that day word came to flood headquarters that the dike on the Point behind the Point Fire Station had failed. That was right where the sandbag effort connected to a solid clay dike.
About that same time, I received a call on my cell phone from my wife, Annie, with the request that I needed to get my butt home. Her directive came with quite a bit of emphasis. With the chaos that erupted at flood headquarters, there wasn’t much reason to stay there. I drove my car to near the railroad tracks a couple blocks north of the Red Lake River. Bygland Road was already under water at the south end of the Murray Bridge. The only traffic over the bridge was by the Zavoral & Sons Construction Co. payloaders that were delivering sandbags to the break site.
One of the Zavoral workers consented when I asked for a ride in with him. At the break site, the attempt to dump the bags from the bucket of the payloader into the bucket of the tracked backhoe that was trying to place them didn’t go well. In the exchange, most of the bags fell into the two or three feet of water that was pouring through the break. Even if successful nothing was going to stop the water that was pouring through the break.
At the direction of the Zavoral employee — I never did get his name — I jumped from the cab of the payloader to the top of the engine compartment of the backhoe. Then before the next bucketload of sandbags arrived, the backhoe operator drove his machine closer to that solid earthen dike. Then he brought the bucket back up to near the engine compartment and told me to get in. I did and held on as he extended the boom out over the water and dropped me off on the clay dike. I only had to dodge a few harmless puddles on three blocks home.
By about 2 in the morning with water coming up from the Red Lake River to the east and from the Red River (where another dike had been overtopped) to the west, there was no choice but to leave. National Guardsmen from Ada delivered us along with several neighbors to the collecting point that had been established at the Senior Citizens Center.
From there at about 5 a.m., we were evacuated by helicopter. There was no other way out. The Point area had become an island, just like in the flood of 1979.
Making a long story short, after first registering in at the brand new, not yet opened Crookston Central High School collecting point, we ended up at home of Ron and Bev Parkin in Fisher. In Fisher, the churchwomen from the three churches took turns providing meals for the flood victims that had landed in their community. Those great women put out some fantastic meals (cake and pie, too). I ate like a pig for 18 days… and lost 10 pounds. Stress does strange things.
There was no stress this year. None. For that and a whole lot more, thank you America.
Note: As for the memories, a lot of them are recorded in the 368-page East Grand Forks 125th anniversary book, “Everybody Has a Story, Everybody Is the Story. Published in 2012, the book tells the individual stories of people who were key in the flood fight and the recovery that followed. The book is available at the East Grand Forks Library.
Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board of Commissioners.