The Missouri River Flood of 2011


After blizzard Hannah; Highway 5 in Langdon.

In 1997, the Red River of the North flooded the Eastern part of the state, topping off Blizzard Hannah from just a few weeks earlier. Hannah snapped tens of thousands of power poles and buried entire houses, and then, when she melted away, decided to let the state sink beneath the water.

Spring flooding had already started before Hannah hit. After the blizzard, the water seemed to appear from nowhere everywhere.

It was than that I realized that when people snidely comment during a flood (in which the homes of the wealthy and not-so-wealthy are destroyed) that people shouldn’t be building on a flood plain, as if anyone deserves the pain and stress because they’re “rich”, they ought to remember that much of the entire state of North Dakota IS a flood plain. It seemed as if, in April of 1997, Lake Agassiz was trying for a comeback.

The weeks prior to Grand Forks going under had been filled with the three colleges in Fargo taking turns calling off classes so we students could help out. I was living in a basement apartment in Moorhead, my landlady already having capped off all sewer drains and leaving me to use the showers and restrooms in the art department. It was difficult to concentrate on things like art history or calculus when you knew there was a looming, murky catastrophe imminent. For several days, I headed over to the Fargo Civic Center to be bused to where they needed help with sandbags. It was the day that the dike broke near the Oak Grove school that stuck out in my  mind. The dike was so far above my head, and the huge amount of water terrified me. We had formed a sandbag line and things were moving so quickly. Water was bubbling up from the saturated ground and the people living in the houses were somewhere between numbly and methodically moving out the important things or panicking over those of us who stepped in flower beds. Suddenly, a rush of law enforcement and firetrucks came by, and I noticed water swirling around my tennis shoes. The dike was giving way, and we were told to get out. The next days were filled with traffic pouring out of Grand Forks to the west, since bridges east were under water. The local news crew got very little sleep, becoming an almost 24-hour station in which they provided emergency updates mixed in with the called-in information of people across the state who were willing to open up their homes to those quickly losing theirs in Grand Forks.

I went home that weekend, my goal being to get through I-29 before it was closed, as it was it quickly succumbing to the deluge. I found myself driving on a road I couldn’t see, gripping the steering wheel tightly as I followed the wake of the truck in front of me through water filled with ice chunks that floated up and banged against the door of my low convertible. I wondered if I should have attempted the drive; everyone else was in a truck. As I was driving north through Grand Forks, the radio station came alive with urgent warnings that the dikes were giving way and people needed to get out.

Dad managed to get a few flights up over Grand Forks before the airspace was restricted, which led to him getting an interview on a radio station regarding the attempts by the town of Drayton to build their dikes higher with wooden panels since the oncoming water was going to exceed the earthen berms and was going to exceed it quickly. He was asked what he thought, since he’d seen the amount of water headed north.

Growing up, we were in a drought; it was always dusty and my sister and I played softball in a dry slough bed. Then, in 1993, things turned into a wet cycle and Devils Lake started devouring farm land and people’s dreams and the Red River became a beast once a year, and it’s been nothing but water in this state ever since.

Every year, I dread spring. I hate the stress people have to go through because of the simple fact that the largest cities tend to be built on rivers, and the cities, of course, are where you find the people. I hate the feeling of being in an area affected by a flood, and the strange stress it puts on everyone, even those (like me, right now) who are in no danger of suffering property damage. The stress to help, the stress of knowing friends are stressed, and the knowledge that people right now are having water drip and leak and pour into their homes, taking away safety and instilling a loss of control and panic. The strange anger of going to help sandbag at the local zoo, for example, and seeing a huge gathering of people at a picnic shelter right next to it not lifting a finger. It’s completely displaced, but comes from a sense that when an oncoming and likely ongoing event is about to devastate and affect a large number of people, life shouldn’t go on as usual if there are ways to help.

Life should go on, but it shouldn’t.

As I drove out to Southport yesterday, to help a friend’s family sandbag, I was almost overcome by tears. The houses there are nicer than anything I’ll likely ever see in my entire life, but I don’t want people to lose their homes. I don’t want to lose my home, and I don’t wish it on anyone else. I saw people hurriedly throwing things into UHaul trucks, and the general chaos that comes from a mix of law enforcement, National Guard, construction equipment, and frantic sandbagging. I sat in a 3+ mile-long traffic jam on Burleigh Avenue since all roads had been blocked, leaving only one entrance for all traffic into the entire southeast part of the city. I saw the frustration on the faces of the people inching along with loads of sandbags that were needed hours ago. I saw, from the air today, how much water is coming our way from Montana and wondering how in the world this is going to go and what Bismarck will look like when it’s all said and done. This isn’t going to be some three-week spring flood, but a sustained flood of high and rushing water for an entire summer. It’s going to change and affect the entire community in some way.

I frequent the local web sites that contain updated flood information and maps, checking to see where my friend’s house is and really angry that I am to be in Portland next week when I would much rather be helping him sandbag his house.

I sit in my dry apartment knowing that I won’t really be affected all that much.

I hate floods. Water flows from high to low when it wants to, and despite what the ACoE says, or whoever is currently being blamed, we really never control it.