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Stocking up, waiting out the flood: life on the Isle of Oslo

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Every road to Oslo, Minn., was closed by floodwaters
Every road to Oslo, Minn. -- north of Grand Forks, N.D., along the Red River -- was closed by floodwaters on Friday.
John Enger | MPR News

On Friday morning, a mile-wide river of floodwaters covered State Highway 1 just east of Oslo, Minn.

To the west, across the Red River in North Dakota, State Highway 54 — the other main access road — had flooded out days before. 

Oslo is on the Red River the southeast corner of Marshall County.
Oslo is on the Red River in the southeast corner of Marshall County.
William Lager | MPR News

It appeared the town of about 330 people had been cut off by springtime flooding of the river yet again — the fifth time in a decade. But as I waded out into ankle-deep water and took some pictures — figuring that might be the extent of my reporting trip — local resident David Nelson rolled up in a Chevy Silverado. He cranked down his window. 

The main roads were all technically closed, he said. But there was still one way in.

"Go a mile and a half back east," he said. "Then go north, two miles."

And then take a left on this one gravel road, that wasn't quite flooded — yet. That last road into Oslo, he said, was open "for the time being." But in a few hours, even that last strip of dry gravel would sink below the floodwaters.

Kitty Stromberg shows off her food stores
Kitty Stromberg shows off her food stores on Friday at Kitty's Cafe in Oslo. She hopes she has enough food to last through flood season, when road access to the town is cut off.
John Enger | MPR News

His directions were good, and on the other side of Oslo's ring levee, the town was safe and dry, and gearing up for another long flood season. 

Kitty's Cafe is right on Main Street. Kitty Stromberg looked up when I came in the door.

"How the heck did you get to town?" she said. "There's no open roads."

I told her there was still one dry gravel road, and she shook her head. 

Tim Solem moves a keg of beer into Jamieson's Bar in Oslo, Minn.
Tim Solem moves a keg of beer into Jamieson's Bar in Oslo on Friday. It was the last shipment into town before the roads were closed by floodwaters.
John Enger | MPR News

Stromberg started the cafe a decade ago. In that time, the Red River turned her hometown into an island on four separate occasions. This year makes five. It's so common, she said people don't really worry about it anymore; it's just a part of living in Oslo. 

Stromberg said she's come to terms with it.

"I don't love the island thing," she said. "But we have to deal with it."

Oslo's ring levee was recently built up a few extra feet. It's rated for a 42-foot flood crest. This year the Red River crested over the weekend just short of 38 feet. 

Fire chief and bar owner Cory Jamieson tends bar for his firefighters
Fire Chief and bar owner Cory Jamieson tends bar for his firefighters on Friday in Oslo. When road access to Oslo is cut off during flood season, he said there's not much to do except hang out and tell flood stories.
John Enger | MPR News

While concerns about property damage have eased, it's the isolation that's still difficult. As soon as the roads are closed, food has to be shipped in by boat. It's complicated, and sometimes dangerous. So Stromberg stocked up ahead of time. She showed off her freezers. 

"This one here is plumb full," she said. "Sausage patties. Diced ham for omelettes."

Most people with out-of-town jobs, or school-age kids, leave Oslo before the roads close. About half of the town's residents are gone. But Stromberg has to be able to feed the people who stay behind, as well as the National Guard members who come to patrol the levee. And it's not clear exactly how long they'll be cut off. Sometimes it's days. Sometimes weeks. 

Red River of the North
The Red River of the North.
William Lager | MPR News

While Stromberg took stock of her food stores, just next door at Jamieson's Bar, a group of volunteer firefighters unloaded a trailer full of the other flood season staple — 100 cases of Bud Light.   

"There are a fair amount of Bud Light drinkers around here," one firefighter said.

Fire Chief — and bar owner — Cory Jamieson stacked the cases in his room-sized refrigerator. 

"When you're flooded, there's not much to do," he said, "but come up to the bar, and tell flood stories." 

When the beer was unloaded, they all sat at the bar and Jamieson brought out some cold ones. If anyone deserved a drink, it was these guys. They saved a man's life that morning. 

Tim Solem told the story — how a North Dakota man tried to drive across a flooded road north of Oslo, and the current swept his car into the ditch. 

Firefighters Patrick Stevens, Derek Rudd, David Nelson and Tim Solem
Volunteer firefighters Patrick Stevens, Derek Rudd, David Nelson and Tim Solem have a beer at Jamieson's Bar in Oslo on Friday, just hours after saving a man from the floodwaters of the Red River north of town.
John Enger | MPR News

"The vehicle was just about completely submerged," Solem said. "He was on the roof. You could tell he was pretty stiff."

When Solem and the crew got to the man in the department's air-boat, he was delirious and taking off his clothes. 

"He was starting to lose it," Solem said. "You go into hypothermia and your mind does weird things." 

They got him to an ambulance just in time — and speaking of time, the firefighters glanced up at the clock on the wall. I better leave now, they said, if I want to make it out of Oslo.