In the Spotlight

News & Features
From Flood Fighting to Flood Cleanup
By Tim Post
Minnesota Public Radio
May 9, 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

Work has shifted from flood fighting to flood clean-up along Minnesota river towns like Montevideo. Residents are tearing down emergency levees and piling rotting sandbags in empty lots. And while officials plan for future floods, some are are asking why the area has seen two major floods in less than five years.

Jerry Tilden's house in Montevideo sits just a few yards from the Chippewa River. He's been flooded out twice since 1997, and is wondering whether it's time to think about moving.
(MPR Photo/Tim Post)
JERRY TILDEN'S HOUSE IS JUST A FEW YARDS FROM THE CHIPPEWA RIVER in Montevideo. The Chippewa flows into the Minnesota River just a few miles from here. During this spring's flood, Tilden's house was surrounded by water, and it spilled into his basement.

"You can see the water level right here. It's about six foot, just above my head, and that's just how full the basement was all the way around."

Tilden has done a lot of flood recovery work on his house already. He was able to come back home about a week ago, gut the basement and clean out the sludge and silt. He's now waiting for a crew to sanitize the basement. After the work is done, Tilden and his wife will have to decide if they want to continue to live here on the flood plain. They were here during the 1997 flood too, and even though they don't want to leave the area they love, the thought has crossed their minds.

"So you have to work out some kind of arrangement with the city to purchase your property if they have funds to do so, and if they don't then it's a matter of staying until something else happens. At some point it may come down to having to move the house," Tilden says.

City officials in Montevideo would like to give homeowners the option to move out of the flood plain. In this neighborhood, 80 homes were bought out and demolished after the 1997 flood. The city's goal is to someday buy out the 40 remaining houses here and turn the neighborhood into a park.

The city has plans to build a $7 million levee to protect it from rising water along the Chippewa. But city manager Steve Jones says that won't happen here on the west end of town, in a neighborhood called Smith Addition.

"I think the chances of us being able to protect this area are gone. We are just going to have to slowly decide that this is a flood plain, and people shouldn't live in a flood plain," says Jones.

A large pile of rotting sandbags, which protected many homes and businesses in Montevideo from flood waters, must now be cleaned up and disposed of.
(MPR Photo/Tim Post)
FEMA officials have visited Montevideo to decide whether the town should receive federal dollars to buy more homes in the flood plain. They are also tallying up the cost of the flood fight and recovery. City officials say with road damage included, the cost of this year's flooding is about $2 million. FEMA will compare their figures with Montevideo's, and then add up the total for Minnesota. If it's more than $5 million, and that's almost a certainty, the state will be declared a federal disaster area, and be eligible for more federal help.

Minnesotans no longer see flooding as a rare occurrence. Some say changing weather patterns are to blame. Others says urban sprawl is the culprit, with water flowing off miles of cul de sacs and strip mall parking lots, instead of soaking into the ground. And some place the blame on Midwestern farming techniques, charging that drained wetlands and farmfields cause the flooding. It's an accusation that doesn't sit well in the farm communities in this part of Minnesota.

Dave Kragmile raises corn and soybeans near the Dawson area, in the Minnesota River Valley upstream from Montevideo. Kragmile says urban residents who think flooding is caused by farmers are wrong, and they shouldn't expect them to change the way they do business any time soon.

"We are certainly not going to convert this area back to total native prairie, so there are going to be tiles and drains and ditches - just as there are going to be storm sewers on the city streets that empty into the rivers as well. But we can all do these, and work with these activities, and engineer these activities in a responsible way," says Kragmile.

Kragmile says farmers should practice metered drainage of their fields so they don't contribute to runoff, and also practice conservation farming. But he also thinks urban residents need to avoid flooding problems themselves, by respecting flood plains and choosing to live elsewhere.

More flood coverage
  • The Flood of 2001