UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Flood fight 101

Here’s your newcomers guide to high water preparedness in Greater Grand Forks

A flood marker by the Sorlie Bridge in Grand Forks’ Greenway along the Red River stands as a reminder of major flood levels throughout the decades. With near perfect melt conditions so far, this flood season would likely resemble spring 2011, when the river crested at around 50 feet, and not the historic deluge of 1997. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

One early afternoon in late March, as John Bernstrom, communication specialist with the City of Grand Forks, sauntered downtown, he noticed melt water rushing down the street and into a drain.

It would seep through the sewers and reach the Red River less than a half mile from where Bernstrom stood.

But back in 1997, when a historic flood soaked the Red River Valley, the city sewers, instead of funneling water into the stream, spewed it back on the streets as the river swelled into the underground infrastructure, Bernstrom said. Since then, Grand Forks has taken measures to thwart such a surge.

“We have the ability to go and close gates so the river doesn’t back up,” said Bernstrom.

Winter, however, heaped ice around the sewer gates. Once the thaw commenced, city crews began to excise them and examine the operability of the hatches. It is an annual task, Bernstrom said, but this year, as flooding spills into the weather outlooks, the chore could be counted toward Grand Forks’ preparation for a potential overflow.

A sturdy system

Most of the City’s flood fight system materialized as a response to the devastation of 1997, when a record flood submerged large portions of the Red River Valley. In Grand Forks, concrete flood walls rose around the river, able to stem a 60-foot crest, as the City retreated behind them.

John Bernstrom, communication specialist with the City of Grand Forks, stands in front of a flood wall near the Sorlie Bridge. The span, one of three that connect Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, would close when the Red reaches 45 feet, he said. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

“There used to be city down here, there were streets, there were buildings,” said Bernstrom as he strolled down a pathway in the Greenway park that replaced the neighborhood that used to abut the stream.

Mounded between the concrete stretches are earthen levees that can bear clay atop in order to leverage some additional height in case the Red bulges past its 1997 level and generates waves.

“Now, that is a really extreme event, really extreme,” said Bernstrom.

In 1997, the Red grew to 54 feet. As of today, the river rests at a little under 23 feet, growing nearly 3 feet in 24 hours, according to East Grand Forks flood dashboard. The National Weather Service predicts a 75-90 percent chance the river would reach 46 feet in the week of April 15.

If this scenario morphs into reality, streets and bridges will start to be cordoned off. In coordination between the cities of East Grand Forks and Grand Forks, the Point Bridge will close first, followed by the Sorlie Bridge, which usually shuts when the river is at about 45 feet.

The spans, themselves, are not likely to go underwater, but the approaches are, Bernstrom said.

The Kennedy Bridge, on Highway 2, is the tallest among the Grand cities’ three main connecting arteries and would, most probably, remain open this spring to shoulder all the traffic between the two communities.

“When we get down to one bridge, especially in the mornings and evenings, we don’t have a lot of traffic jams here but we get one then,” Bernstrom said. “It takes people longer to get to and from work.”

In a wait mode

With an emergency declaration issued, the City is in a “wait mode” as the spring thaw progresses and the flood protection system is readied. (Above) Runoff water gushes under the snow pack in the Greenway near the Sorlie Bridge. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

Yet, until then, the City is in a “wait mode,” with an emergency declaration in place that would afford access to state and federal resources if the need arises.

Because of its flood protection system Grand Forks does not require any major public readiness initiatives such as Fargo’s sandbagging operation or the efforts in smaller, rural towns in the Valley.

“It is very much a public works engineering event for the City of Grand Forks when it comes to flood preparation,” said Bernstrom. “It is a City staff event. Hopefully we do not get to the point where it is a public event.”

The flood protection system has already proved its robustness in the flood of 2011 when the river crowned at 50 feet. Current prognosis, enhanced by nearly ideal melt conditions, is that the 2019 flood season is likely to resemble that of eight years ago rather than the deluge of 1997.

Aside from the 8 miles of walls and levees, part of the system’s effectiveness lies in the 12 pumps that flush city runoff into the river once the gutters are blocked; the diversion channel that allows for the control of the English Coulee as well as the tieback levee along Merrifield Road that prevents the river from sneaking on the City from behind.

Staking the scenario

The City extensively communicates and cooperates with East Grand Forks, the County and UND, Bernstrom said, to ensure public safety.

Still, there are steps that citizens can undertake on their own to protect their individual properties.

“Every house is a little unique,” said Bernstrom. “We ask residents – know your house.”

Although the terrain in the Valley is relatively flat, subtle elevation shifts form swathes that could be more susceptible to water damage than others. Homeowners, Bernstrom said, should be aware if their estates lie in such “low spots.”

He advises residents to ready for a potential flooding by inspecting their homes and evaluating their need for sump pumps and sandbags. Most of all, though, people should heed weather updates.

While the City and County of Grand Forks prepare for a potential flood, residents should take steps themselves to protect their property. Monitoring the weather and the Red’s level is essential during the flood season. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

“[Residents] should monitor and pay attention to river levels, situations where you have to commute,” Bernstrom said.

Within the confines of the City, there are lots that rest in the way of a swelling Red. The Shade Ridge-Adams Drive neighborhood, for instance, huddles between a levee and the river.

While homes here are perched high enough to likely eschew an inundation, if the river soars, utilities could be cut off but emergency equipment would be stationed in the enclave in case access to it becomes arduous.

“The river has to be really high for that but that is a contingency that is in place,” said Bernstrom, adding that in 2011 Shady Ridge lost no services. “Shutting the water there [ensures that] it doesn’t get contaminated for the entire City.”

What you can do

Regardless of where in the Greater Grand Forks community you live, here are general tips on how to prepare for the 2019 flood season:
  1. Monitor the weather and flood outlook updates through the National Weather Service (starting on April 3, these will come in daily).
  2. Sign up for flood alerts from the City and County of Grand Forks as well as from neighboring Polk County in Minnesota. The UND flood blog and the University alert system also carry notices.
  3. Prepare your home – declutter gutters and drains; prepare sandbags and pumps; move valuables and documents to higher levels; assess the need for a flood insurance (it could take up to a month for a newly purchased flood insurance to kick in).
  4. Gather supplies and groceries.
  5. Familiarize yourself with road closures that could affect your commute.
  6. Know the evacuation routes if the need to leave emerges.
When flooding occurs, depending on where you are, these are things you should keep in mind:
  1. Do not drive, walk or swim in submerged areas.
  2. Heed road closure signs and other barricades.
  3. If your vehicle is trapped in rapidly moving water, remain inside. If it begins to sink, climb to the rooftop.
  4. Check and heed the latest official updates and instructions during a flood situation.
  5. If told to evacuate, do so.
After a flood, you should:
  1. Listen to authorities.
  2. If you need to clean or repair any water damage, wear protective gear. Make sure there is no risk of electrocution.
  3. Before you drink or use faucet water, make sure it is not contaminated.
  4. Avoid wading or driving in standing water.