Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Like it was yesterday: The 20th anniversary of the Red River flood

April 3, 2017

Red River flooding in downtown East Grand Forks in 1997.
​Photo: The Red River flooded its banks in April of 1997 to devastating effect. The city of East Grand Forks now has a flood plan in place to ensure its downtown never looks like this again.

Twenty years ago this month, the residents of East Grand Forks and surrounding communities found themselves in dire straits. The record 101 inches of snow they had received that winter was melting, and the banks of the Red River simply couldn’t handle it.

And when it finally burst its banks, the water stretched an astonishing three miles inland. All but eight homes in East Grand Forks were flooded. Five hundred were condemned. Eleven people died. The flood damage to the three states involved – Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota – came to a staggering $4.1 billion (that’s about $6.2 billion in 2017 dollars).

Flooded homes and garages in East Grand Forks in 1997.As you can imagine, recovery took years. But the area’s citizens, along with local, state and federal agencies, have been working hard not only to bounce back from this disaster but to make sure nothing like it happens again. In fact, the Red River flood recovery has been used as a model by other communities that have suffered similar natural disasters. The mayor of East Grand Forks once referred to the city as “The poster child of flood recovery,” citing the extraordinary way different government organizations at all levels worked together to make it happen.

Gary Larson, emergency manager of East Grand Forks, says the hazard mitigation projects put in place to protect the city from future flooding have been incredibly successful. “The city has worked hard to get us to a place where people can continue on with their lives and not be too concerned about flooding.”

That’s pretty impressive when you stop to consider how insidious water can be. There are a lot of different parts to the East Grand Forks flood plan: man-made and earthen dikes, cement walls, and invisible flood walls. The latter are aluminum panels with seals reminiscent of lock and dam arrangements. The entire system makes it so that the water level could reach 61 feet – that’s over six stories – without flooding the downtown portion of the city. It essentially turns East Grand Forks into an island. It has even been certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Another great thing about the flood plan is that it doesn’t require sandbagging on the part of its citizenry. Twenty years ago, they worked tirelessly to place 3.5 million sandbags – an effort that ultimately proved futile. But in 2006, the Red River flooded again, and the new flood mitigation plan kept the damage to a small fraction of the 1997 cost.

Twenty years down the line, recovery is still ongoing—but the communities around the Red River of the North have learned a lot and are stronger for it.