In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Lessons Learned
By Dan Gunderson
March 6, 1998
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The flood of 1997 set records all along the Red River of the North. The river rose to levels no one alive had ever seen. The high water caused billions of dollars in damage, but it also gave flood fighters some valuable insights that may help their communities - and communities across the country - fight future floods.

THE WARNINGS ABOUT POTENTIALLY SERIOUS FLOODING began early. National Weather Service forecaster Gary McDevitt issued a flood outlook on February 28, 1997.

McDevitt: Based on current conditions, plus normal precipitation through the month of March, we're looking at all locations on the Red River of the North exceeding flood of record... that's very serious.

By mid-March, nearly 10 feet of snow had fallen across the Red River Valley. National Weather Service forecaster Lou Bennett warned local officials this flood would be like nothing they had seen before.

Bennett: If we get liquid precipitation of any kind, as we have in past years, all bets are off. It's gonna be a bad situation as it is, made unmanageable if we get significant rainfall.

Significant precipitation arrived April 6, when a late winter storm dumped several inches of rain and snow on the entire Red River Valley.

Over the next two weeks, Breckenridge was inundated twice. And Ada was swamped while the people of Fargo-Moorhead frantically raised dikes, and with a bit of luck, held the river at bay.

But there was to be no such luck for Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. In the third week of April, the National Weather Service flood forecast rose faster than dikes could be raised, and on April 18, the communities went under.

Blame for the the disaster was first cast on the National Weather Service within days, when an angry East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss spoke to evacuated residents in Bemidji.

Stauss: They not only blew it, they blew it big.

A year later, Stauss is still angry - angry the city worked so long and hard to prepare based on what turned out to be inaccurate information.

Stauss: Never in the history of the town had we prepared more to take care of a flood situation. I think the city did its job.

Belles: Yeah, we took a lot of heat. We're gonna take a lot of heat... we understand that.

National Weather Service forecaster Jim Belles says he understands the anger, but he's convinced the weather service did the best it could in an unprecedented situation.

There will be changes because of the flood of '97. Forecasting models will be updated. Last year's water flow went off the charts, and existing computer models could not effectively predict what would happen.

But Belles says forecasters can't change the way they forecast floods.

Belles: I can't sit down and say, "Well, if I think its gonna be 50 feet in Grand Forks, I'm just gonna add two feet, 'cause gosh, it's been a tough road for that community." We can't do that because then additional money has to be spent to build dikes just because I'm trying to be conservative.

Weather service forecasts are critical to communities because the Army Corp of Engineers, which pays for emergency dikes, uses river-level predictions to decide how high dikes will be.

Miles of temporary clay dikes were built and about eight million sandbags were used in the the Red River Valley. East Grand Forks engineer Gary Sanders says there will never be another sandbag dike in his city if he can help it.

Sanders: It will never be sandbags again. I said it after '79. I hate 'em, yet we did millions. You lose every time with sandbags, and the effort to do it is so intense.

Like many, Gary Sanders favors a diversion ditch for future flood protection, but he realizes economic reality means the city will instead need to depend on higher dikes for protection in the future.

In the wake of the flood of '97, some contend communities should not depend on protection from emergency dikes, built while the water is rising. Tim Birchee says that's wishful thinking. Birchee oversees operations for the Army Corps of Engineers in the Red River Valley. He says emergency dikes are the only way to protect some areas unless communities move away from the river. The Corps spent $10 million building dikes last spring; estimates are those emergency dikes prevented $60 million in damage to communities in the Red River Valley.

Birchee says last year's historic event was an unprecedented opportunity to improve flood fighting techniques.

Birchee: If we were faced with the same conditions we were last year, if we were faced with those conditions now, we'd be in better shape than last year all up and down the valley; because of what's in place, because of what we've learned.

Birchee says in the desperate attempt to hold off the river, better ways to build stronger dikes were discovered, and communication between local, state, and federal agencies became much more efficient.

As damage was assessed in the wake of the flood, the importance of the Federal Flood Insurance Program became clear, but troubling questions remain about why thousands of people did not have flood insurance.

Ad voice: A public safety message from FEMA.... Federal disaster assistance after a flood can help you get back on your feet, but it won't take care of everything. That's why you need flood insurance.

In early 1997, Radio and TV stations ran ads for weeks urging people to buy flood insurance.

Ad voice: Remember it's not if it will flood, but when...

The campaign encouraged several thousand people to buy insurance, but in the end, only about 10% of people who were flooded used the program. Spence Perry directs the Federal Insurance Administration.

Perry: We practically begged people to buy flood insurance. We said the train is coming and you are on the track, please do something to get yourself off.

Perry says he's not sure why, despite all the warnings of record flooding, people did not participate. In some cases, insurance agents told people they would not need flood insurance. Perry says agents will be better educated. He also thinks people will take the message more seriously if future ads feature local politicians, not a professional voice.

One of the most visible agencies in the flood was the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. It's charged with responding to disasters, and local officials say the response was remarkable.

Still, FEMA is looking at the Red River Valley flood as a long-term learning experience. Steve Olson is director of the FEMA regional office in Denver. He says the buyout of flood-damaged homes in Fargo-Moorhead, Grand Forks, and East Grand Forks has moved at record speed. That experience will help other communities in the future. Olson says the response in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks may also be a model for the Federal Government's new approach to disasters.

Olson: Rather than put money into repetitive funding like we have, we'd like to mitigate more in the future. What mitigate means is an action to lessen the impact of disasters on people, property, and taxpayer costs.

Olson says moving hundreds of homes out of low-lying neighborhoods and building a new levee system should mean FEMA won't ever need to bring its flood disaster teams to Grand Forks again.

That's the outcome East Grand Forks engineer Gary Sanders is hoping for. He says it will be best if the lessons learned in the flood of '97 are never needed. But if record flooding happens again in his career, he's very clear what he will do differently: people's personal lives will take precedence over saving the community.

Gary Sanders: Where do you tell people to get out? We didn't do it soon enough. But we were all fighting the flood... very few people were taking care of their own things. Maybe we take care of ourselves and then we do community. Hopefully, we don't have to go through that again. But the personal loss to people was pretty amazing... something that's pretty unacceptable.

Sanders says the flood of '97 profoundly affected the lives of tens of thousands of people. He says to make sure the devastation is never repeated, it must never be forgotten.