PART OF MPR'S GREAT FLOOD OF 1997 COVERAGE.
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The worst flood in recorded history is moving down the Minnesota River. Hundreds of people have left their homes in Montevideo and Granite Falls and the river is still rising. Its expected to crest tomorrow. Mark Steil of Mainstreet Radio reports from Granite Falls, where sandbagging efforts continue.
THERE WAS SO MUCH SNOW this winter along the Minnesota River that some houses were buried by drifts. That snow has melted and combined with spring rain to push the Minnesota out of its banks:
SOUND OF RIVER FLOWING OVER DAM
At Granite Falls the Minnesota careens over a dam in the downtown part of the city. Nearby, a pedestrian bridge over the river is swamped, and the rushing water seems certain to tear the small suspension bridge from its moorings. Mayor Dave Smiglewski watches the river inch closer to a dike protecting main street. He has to brace himself against gusting winds from a spring snowstorm:
"WE'VE GOT HIGHER WATER THAN HAS EVER BEEN RECORDED ON THE MINNESOTA RIVER HERE AT GRANITE. AND A CREST THAT KEEPS CLIMBING BECAUSE WE KEEP GETTING MOISTURE. WE HAD AN INCH AND A HALF OF RAIN YESTERDAY AND EVEN MORE RAIN UPSTREAM FROM US. AND OF COURSE WE'VE GOT BLIZZARD CONDITIONS TODAY SO, WE'RE HANGING ON WITH OUR FINGERNAILS."
VEHICLE SOUNDS UP ... FADE UNDER
Behind Smiglewski is a constant parade of support vehicles. Trucks carrying sandbags, school buses full of volunteers from other towns, emergency vehicles. Down the block a sign on an old movie house marquee identifies the Ryer Plumbing and Heating store. Wendell Ryer must stop halfway down the basement stairs. He points to a flashlight floating on the four feet of muddy river water covering the floor:
"ITS REALLY AMAZING, HOW SMALL YOU FEEL WHEN MOTHER NATURE TAKES OVER."
Ryer isn't surprised the Minnesota River has surged a couple feet past its previous high water mark. He says changes in farming practices are partly to blame. Wetlands areas, called sloughs, used to absorb farmland runoff. But most of those areas have been converted to cropland:
"WE DON'T HAVE SLOUGHS LIKE WE USED TO THAT CONTAIN THE WATER. ITS THE WAY FARMING HAS GOT TO BE. THEY DON'T DRIVE AROUND SLOUGHS ANYMORE, THEY FARM THEM. YOU TALK TO OLD-TIMERS THAT ARE 80-90 YEARS OLD AND THEY SAY THEY'VE NEVER SEEN WATER LIKE THIS. BUT SEEING IS BELIEVING."
Across the river from Mains Street National Guard troops pile sandbags atop a dike protecting homes. Their eyes are level with the river. Its only a foot below the top of the dike. An emergency management official for the region updates the soldiers on flood conditions upriver from Granite Falls:
"ORTONVILLE HAS GOT A DAM THAT'S OVERFLOWING NOW, THEY GOT LARGE ICE CHUNKS THAT ARE UP THERE. IF ONE OF THOSE GIVES WAY IT'LL TAKE THE DAM WITH IT."
A break in the dam could be catastrophic for Granite Falls. About forty families have been evacuated from their homes. . . some have water in their homes, others have moved as a precautionary measure. Sandy Drager and her family built a dike to keep the flood water out of their house, but had to abandon the effort when the water rose too quickly. 28 years ago she helped sandbag when a record flood threatened homes, but she says it was nothing like this years high water:
"THAT WAS A MOLEHILL, THIS IS A MOUNTAIN. THAT DOESN'T EVEN COMPARE TO THIS YEAR. 69. THATS HISTORY, THIS IS HISTORY TODAY. AND NOT VERY GOOD HISTORY. BECAUSE A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE GOING TO BE REAL DEVASTATED HERE."
The Minnesota River could rise another two feet before it crests.