04 December 2023

Water, water everywhere – 1997 Red River Flood 

The Red River flows through a vast area of the United States of America and the area our article is based on is referred to the Red River of the North.

During April and May of 1997 many towns were affected by its flooding. The flood waters occurred along Minnesota, North Dakota and Southern Manitoba. The most affected towns were Grand Forks, North Dakota, East Grand Forks and Minnesota.

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The Red River has been prone to flooding for generations and in 1997 it was the worst flooding in 100 years and is called the "Flood of the Century.” 

In the lead-up to the full effect of the flooding, there were some preventable measures put in place to lessen the impact. Thousands of volunteers helped build sandbag dikes. Hundreds of farms were impacted with most finding temporary placements for livestock. Chickens were even popped on a barge. Neighbours were helping neighbours, sandbagging, pumping out basements and moving belongings onto rooftops where they could be later rescued.

Flooding in the Red River basin is compounded by several factors including the flat river basin, a shallow river channel and the northerly flow. In 1997, a harsh winter with above-average snowfall (101 inches of snow or approx. 2.5m) and an unusually late snowfall in the spring meant that when the snow began to melt, the water volume was simply too much for the river to cope with.  

Tens of thousands of residents were evacuated and only 8 homes in East Grand Forks were spared while tragically some 500 homes had to be condemned.  

Not only did the locals have to contend with the filthy, polluted flood waters but ironically a fire broke out in the Security Building at Grand Forks in North Dakota, leading to 11 buildings in total being destroyed. The buildings were completely gutted although they were sitting in flood waters! The flood waters made it almost impossible for firefighters to put their skills to work!

Initially whilst it was said there were no deaths directly from the flood, sadly there was a death of a 14-year-old boy who at the time was playing with friends near a water-filled ditch near a culvert in Manitoba and with the rush of storm waters he was pulled into the stormwater sewers and despite efforts to rescue him the water was too powerful.

The post-effect of the flooding caused issues for the farming community as they had water on their land for several weeks and whilst trying to move the water off their land it caused conflict between neighbours. 

Once the water was cleared there was soil erosion and the quality of the soil had deteriorated. Some crops were not planted until 6 weeks later than usual which led to a not-so-productive year.

Since 1997 more than a billion dollars (AUD $1.5b) have been spent on flood control projects along the Red River. Approximately 12 miles (19.3km) of levees and flood walls have been built, and several large-capacity electric pumps have also been put in place.