Red River flood -- what's changed since 1997?

Red Lake River
The Red Lake River winds its way through the town of Crookston in northwest Minnesota. In 1950, the river overflowed and damaged hundred of homes and businesses. Since then, the city has improved its system of levees and flood walls, but some 500 homes remain vulnerable in several neighborhoods.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

A cold rain falls as Craig Buness stands near the banks of the Red Lake River in Crookston.

Buness is too young to remember when this river spilled from its banks in 1950, but his parents and some of his neighbors do. That was Crookston's worst flood on record. It damaged hundreds of homes and downtown businesses.

Craig Buness
Craig Buness is a lifelong resident of Crookston. Buness says most residents get concerned each spring when the water rises.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Buness says it seems like every few years, people in Crookston have to fill sandbags to protect their neighborhoods.

"We've had some tough battles in the '60s, '97, 2001. Just two, three years ago we had a tough one here, too," said Buness. "I think no matter how old you are in Crookston, I think everybody here has seen high water."

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Crews have done some sandbagging in Crookston, but the city is holding off on calling in volunteers. The Red Lake River isn't expected to crest until April 3, and officials think they're in good shape for now.

That's because Crookston is much better protected from flooding than it used to be. After the 1997 flood that devastated Grand Forks, the state and federal governments provided more flood protection money to cities.

Red Lake River
Large sections of the Red Lake River are still frozen.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Crookston moved homes out of the flood zone. They built a bypass to divert floodwater, and they build new levees around most neighborhoods.

Crookston is a good example of the kinds of moves cities have made to protect property from floods. But the work's not finished.

Crookston is still waiting for funding to complete levees to protect some 500 vulnerable homes in two neighborhoods. Mike McDonald, Crookston's community development director, says the current levees are nearly 60 years old.

"They were built after the 1950 flood, and they were worked on in the 1960s and raised up. They're in serious condition and certainly don't have the height that we'd like to see," said McDonald. "They performed well for us over the years, but we feel that we're at significant risk."

Aaron Parrish and Mike McDonald
Crookston City Administrator Aaron Parrish, left, and Mike McDonald, the city's community development director, stand near a stretch of the Red Lake River that needs work. Erosion has deteriorated the city's older levees, which were built following Crookston's massive flood in 1950.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

A number of cities in the Red River Valley are waiting on state or federal funding to build permanent levees.

In Breckenridge, the Red River is expected to crest sometime today. Crews there have been sandbagging and building up temporary levees to get ready.

Flooding in 1997 covered most of Breckenridge. The city's Vice Mayor, Jeff Krueger, says the city is much better protected now. But he hopes the state will come through with more funding this year.

"Between 1997 and now there has been more permanent diking put into place. And the diking that was in place in 1997 has been raised to 1997 levels, with an area of extra free board," said Krueger. "Hopefully from this point forward we'll be able to move on with flood protection in the next year or so, of putting permanent levees and dikes."

Crookston flood wall
A flood wall in Crookston.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Farther north, in Grand Forks, city officials see this flood season as the first big test of its upgraded flood protection system.

After the massive flood there in 1997, Grand Forks spent hundreds of millions of dollars building a system of flood walls, earthen levees, pump stations and diversion channels.

City spokesman John Bernstrom says even with all the new safeguards, people are uneasy about the rising Red River.

"We have no reason to believe things won't work. But when you're talking 50 feet of the Red River, it causes people to get a little nervous ... people are just more cautious," said Bernstrom. "It's not a scramble to move things out of their basement and up to the upper floors, like things were in '97. This is just a situation where everyone is paying close attention to the forecast."

Crews in Grand Forks have already begun closing some roads in preparation for the crest this weekend. Bernstrom says the closures allow crews to create temporary levees to fill gaps in the flood wall.

"We're not under the gun to the point where if we don't get something done today we're going to lose a section of town," said Bernstrom. "We are going through our procedures of closing off some of those openings in the flood protection project, but that is all part of a flood protection procedure we're going through. It's not a panic or reactionary mode. We are being proactive."

The Red River in Grand Forks is expected to crest at least several feet below the record 54-foot crest of 1997. Grand Forks residents have been coming to Fargo by the busload to help that city with its sandbagging effort.