Red River Flood – May 4, 1997

This international waterway annually faces the risk of flooding because of the several variables that affect water levels in both countries.

The Red River Flood of 1997, affecting both the United States and Canada, was a major flood that occurred in May 1997 in North Dakota, Minnesota, and southern Manitoba. It was the most severe flood of the river since 1826, causing extensive flooding and destruction on both sides of the border and damaging almost $3 billion worth of property. The Red River originates in Minnesota and flows northward through a large glacial lake basin, that of Lake Agassiz, the largest of the glacial lakes that were formed at the close of the last ice age. It covered an area of half a million square miles and left in its wake a low-lying landscape, almost completely flat in places. The Red River overflows its banks in most years and the low elevation of the surrounding terrain ensures that water covers a big area when that happens. The flatness of the river basin is evident in the gradient as the river flows northward, an average slope of six inches per mile for the whole five hundred miles of its length. Natural levees, five feet in height, rise on either side of the river.

The events of 1997 were far worse than anything previously experienced. The river reached the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, where floodwaters stretched outwards from the river for three miles, inundating virtually everything in these two cities and causing US$2 billion in damages. The situation was similar in Canada.

Floods are notoriously unpredictable as the Chinese discovered over the centuries of their history and as the United States discovered with the Mississippi River. In fact, our inability to distinguish between weather and climate in our preoccupation with the advancing global warming has tended to make us attribute every daily change in temperature or precipitation to global warming. Media commentators are worst culprits here. The last time that Winnipeg had a flood like that in 1997 was 1826 and Canadian meteorologists predicted that it would not repeat for a further five hundred years. It came back in about 170 years.

There was some sense of imminent threat in Grand Forks but the National Weather Service (NWS) had a long-standing forecast for the river to crest at forty-nine feet, the river’s highest level during the 1979 flood, so people felt secure. The cities had been able to get their dikes to this level, but the river continued to rise past it in 1997, to the astonishment of the NWS that had failed to upgrade its forecast until April 16, 1997, the day the river actually reached forty-nine feet. The dikes over Grand Forks and East Grand Forks area all were overtopped on that day, flooding thousands of homes, and necessitating the evacuation of all of East Grand Forks and 75 percent of Grand Forks. School was cancelled in both cities for the remainder of the term, as were classes at the University of North Dakota.

Because all transportation was cut off between the two cities, East Grand Forks residents were evacuated to nearby Crookston, namely to the University of Minnesota, Crookston, while residents of Grand Forks went to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Many residents also evacuated to motels and homes in neighboring communities. The river crested at 54.35 feet on April 21, 1997, and the river level would not fall below forty-nine feet until April 26 of that same year. Because water drained so slowly out of the most low-lying areas, some homeowners couldn’t visit their damaged property until May. There was $2 billion USD in damage to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Grand Forks lost 3 percent of its population from 1997 to 2000 and didn’t fare as badly as its sister city which lost nearly 17 percent of its residents. The five-foot discrepancy between the actual crest and that which the NWS had predicted led to widespread anger among locals, especially since the citizens of both cities reached and even slightly surpassed the NWS’s level of protection through weeks of hard work while raising the level of the dikes.

The province of Manitoba completed the Red River Floodway in 1968 after six years of excavation, put up permanent dikes in eight towns south of Winnipeg, and built clay dikes and diversion dams in the Winnipeg area. However, even with these flood protection measures, the province was not prepared for the 1997 event, known as “The Flood of the Century.” At the flood’s peak in Canada on May 4, the Red River occupied an area of nine hundred square miles with more than a thousand additional square miles of land under water, appropriately named the red sea. There were 75,000 people who had to abandon their homes. Damage costs were $450 million. The U.S.–Canadian Mission that looked after the Red River Waterway immediately began to plan for better protection against floods.

In retrospect, there were five main factors that contributed to the flood’s severity: (1) rainstorms in autumn of 1996 had saturated the ground so that it could not absorb much water; (2) there was overabundant snowfall during the 1996–1997 winter; (3) an abnormally cold temperature regime plagued the Upper Midwest during this same winter; (4) between November 7 of 1996 and March 18 of 1997 the air temperature reached forty degrees for three days only so there was very little melting of the snow; (5) a freak blizzard dumped a large amount of snow on the area on the weekend of April 5, 1997.

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