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Why Disastrous floods hit Northern U.S.

What caused this spring's widespread floods?
Can such destruction be prevented in the future?
What lessons were learned — and NOT learned — by this disaster?
Read the answers in this on-the-spot report from the major flood areas.


THE pattern was all too familiar. Heavy rains had saturated the soil last fall before the winter freeze. Snow came early and in record or near-record amounts. More than one hundred inches fell in many areas of the Northern Great Plains.

To make matters worse, the water content of the snow was extremely high — and natural ponding areas were already generally full. Winter stream-flow of many rivers was averaging more than twice the normal flow.

Months before the spring thaw began; it was obvious what was coming.


Preparing for the Inevitable

In Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin and northern Iowa, cities, towns and farms along the Red River of the North, the upper Mississippi, the Mouse, the Big Sioux, the St. Croix, the Minnesota — and dozens of other rivers and streams — prepared for the inevitable as best they could.

Time was precious and everyone knew it.

Quickly the Army Corps of Engineers seized the initiative and organized the flood fight. In cooperation with local communities, Operation Foresight — a plan of emergency preparation and action — was launched. The Corps agreed to supply the know-how and to let the contracts for the building of emergency dikes if local communities would supply rights of way, fill, volunteer labor, etc.

The speed and efficiency with which Operation Foresight was carried out exceeded all expectations. Colonel Hesse of the St. Paul Corps of Engineers office said, "I frankly didn't feel we could move with the dispatch that we did. I suspect we mobilized more equipment faster than has ever been done anywhere at any time."

Some 72 miles of temporary dikes were constructed in only twenty days! A total of 110 miles of dikes were built.

And then — after days of tense waiting — the floods came.

As the rivers pushed to their crests, our staff members travelled to the major critical areas to bring our readers the unique coverage for which The PLAIN TRUTH is known. Our purpose is not only to report what happened, but also to explain why it happened and what it means.


Fargo-Moorhead Fights the Flood

Our first destination was the Red River of the North which forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. Arriving in Fargo late at night, we found a six-foot emergency dike literally at the door of our motel! The Red River — climbing to its highest crest in 72 years — was rushing by several feet above the level of the street we were standing on! We didn't mind it a bit that our rooms were on an upper floor.

Half a block down the street we noticed considerable activity and went to see what was taking place. A leak in the dike was developing right in front of the city hall and frantic efforts were being made to stop it. In the eerie artificial light dozens of volunteers — mostly young men — were feverishly unloading sandbags from a huge truck and trying to plug the leak. Their efforts were successful. The leak was stayed.

It was obvious that many of the volunteers and officials had put in long hours and were dead tired. Paradoxically, just two blocks away the bars were still open and filled with as many customers as usual — all seemingly oblivious to the danger and drama which was taking place just around the corner.

The next morning the Fargo and Moorhead Police Departments graciously arranged for us to survey the flooded area by boat.

Fargo already had had a permanent levee in critical areas of the city. In preparation for the flood, it had been shored up and extended. The city purchased about six houses which were in the area of the dike extension. Several of these were moved and the rest were sacrificed to the flood.

Moorhead was not so well prepared and the damage was more severe on that side of the river.

We shook our heads in disbelief as we saw dozens of houses immersed in swirling water — some up to their roofs — and were informed that in certain parts of these low-lying areas this was almost an annual occurrence.

One man boasted that he had been flooded out of his home more than thirty times!

Another — whose house was now under water — had just put $7,000 in improvements into his home!

But it was even more amazing to learn about the better class of newer homes — some in the $100,000 category — which were flooded in suburbs to the south!

As the water climbed higher, rats were driven from their sewer sanctuaries and became somewhat of a problem — but not to the great extent rumored. Chief Anderson of the Fargo Police Department said tourists and rumors were a far bigger menace than the rats.

Many Fargo-Moorhead citizens were impressed by the way the young people had responded to the crisis. Their volunteer labor had undoubtedly prevented millions of dollars' worth of damage.

Others were not so all-inclusive in their praise. They said that while many of the young people did work hard, a number of the hippies were so unaccustomed to work that they were more of a hindrance than a help. Some hippies said they would let the whole establishment go down the river before they would lift a finger to help.


Surveying the Red River by Air

The next morning we flew down the river by air. (Down happens to be north on the Red River which flows into Canada) Part of our team went by helicopter in order to survey the area at a lower altitude and to get closer pictures.

At one time the broad floodplain of the Red River was glacial Lake Agassiz. This morning it was again a lake — 150 miles long and from eight to twelve miles wide where the river was cresting.

More than 210,000 acres of fertile farmland were inundated. Operation Foresight could do little in these rural areas. Many old-timers said the property damage on farms hit by this flood was the worst they had ever seen — and living on the Red River they had seen many.

On literally hundreds of farms we saw buildings, machinery and haystacks under several feet of brown, murky water — and sometimes more. Livestock were seen huddled together on the few remaining patches of dry ground. Some farmers had successfully diked their houses; others hadn't even tried.

One farmer, for example, lost 21 head of dairy cattle. Another lost a bin full of soybeans. The beans became wet and expanded, literally "blowing up" the beans and the bin. Other farm losses included buildings, pollution of wells, damage to roads and fences, and the cost of cleaning up debris. Many of these losses are extremely difficult to assess and do not appear on any official statistic.

Some farmers were reported to have dynamited and bulldozed roads and culverts to keep water off their land or to get rid of it. This hurt other farmers who were angrily trying to press legal action.

Though individual losses were sometimes very high, a Department of Agriculture official explained to us that actual damage to most farms was probably not as bad as it looked. The big concern was that the water would recede in time to permit planting before it was too late in the relatively short growing season. Rain or other unfavorable weather which would keep farmers from getting into the fields would be a far greater disaster than the flood as far as the majority of the farmers were concerned.

North of Grand Forks, the little town of Oslo, Minnesota (pop. 440) was high and dry. A dike — constructed in 1966 — ringed the village which was now an island in a twelve-mile-wide lake.

Oslo stood out in sharp contrast to several other villages along the riverbed. Perley, Minnesota (pop. 165), for example, had no protection and a foot of water flowed through the highest parts of the village. Perley is located more than one mile from the Red River channel and no one could remember the village being flooded before. Some blamed the Army Corps of Engineers for Perley's plight, others blamed the village fathers, and yet others were silent — as if in disbelief that it could happen to them.

In the Riverside Park area of Grand Forks, tempers were rising faster than the river's crest. Some citizens had opposed any dike which would harm their lawns and obstruct their view of the river. Now about fifty homes — among the cities finest — were under water and, it seemed, nearly everyone was blaming everybody else.


The Mouse that Roared

When our staff arrived in Minot, the city was between crests of the Mouse River. Winding down from Canada where it is called the Souris (French for "mouse"), the river was delivering a soggy one-two punch.

The Des Lacs and Mouse rivers meet eight miles north of the city. While an ice jam in Canada slowed the flow of the Mouse, the Des Lacs reached its crest and came storming into the city. Crest number two — the bigger one by several feet — came from the Mouse and was a week behind. This prolonged the anguish, but gave the city time to prepare for it.

Flooding on the Mouse is quite infrequent, and Minot had little flood protection. Because the Mouse traverses some twelve miles as it meanders through the four-mile-wide city, it was an impossibility to construct emergency dikes along the 24 miles of riverbank. Such a project would take several months.

The city therefore chose to protect its public facilities by dikes, to arrange for the evacuation of those who needed it, and to let everyone else shift for themselves.

One person who shifted for himself was the owner of a small shopping center on the riverfront. Trucks and bulldozers were roaring and snorting as men worked around the clock to ring the area with a dike. Some of the drivers had already been working for 24 hours and the end was not in sight.

The owner explained to us that the work which was under way was costing him $300 per hour. He estimated it would cost $16,000 to dike up the shopping center and another $5,000 to haul the dirt away — all of it coming out of his pocket.

At least one homeowner declared himself a "personal disaster area" and turned in his house keys to the mortgage company.

Others were determined to save their homes at all costs. They made sandbags from any material available — including colorful cast-off clothing.

The owner of a $75,000 home built a seven-foot dike around his house and reinforced it on the side facing the river with wood and plastic sheeting. He put a boat on top of the dike and waited for the crest. Most of his neighbors had abandoned their homes. One had left for California and would not return until the flood was over.

Some 3,000 homes occupied by 12,000 people were evacuated. This was one-third of the inhabitants of Minot.

Total damage is estimated at about $20,000,000 — an average of more than $600 for every one of the 35,000 persons living in Minot.

The flood this spring was the biggest since 1929 and second in size only to the record flood of 1904. Though this early flood had a higher crest, only 4,000 people lived in Minot in 1904.

In an interview with Mayor Johnson we asked if he thought the flood would have any long-range effects on the city. He did not think so. Most flood victims would return to their homes and forget all about it — until the next flood. In some river-front areas, property values would fluctuate for a while, the mayor speculated, but before long all would be back to normal. "Flood conditions are one of the shortest-lived memories which people have," he said. After what we had seen we were inclined to agree.