Sunday, April 29, 2007

Looking Back: Flood of 1997

FLOOD OF 1997: Defiant PembinaBy Kevin Bonham
Grand Forks Herald Staff Writer - 04/26/2007

PEMBINA, N.D. - The community of Pembina was a defiant one, back in April 1997.

With the Red River continuing to rise toward a predicted record crest, the National Weather Service raised the crest forecast by another 4 feet, to between 56 and 59 feet - 2 feet higher than the city's dikes.

Armed with that information, state and local officials on April 24 ordered the evacuation of North Dakot's oldest settlement.

But Pembina's flood committee and community leaders were not about to quit.

"They should give us a chance to whip this," Chuck Walker said at the time. "All we want is an honest chance at it. No one wants to lose their homes."

Walker was a County Commissioner at the time. His wife, Hetty Walker, was the town's mayor.

They called then Governor Ed Schafer, who arrived in town to talk with local and state officials. They contacted Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who arrived by helicopter to survey the situation.

"The equipment already had left town," Hetty Walker said. "Sen. Conrad borrowed a cell phone and called the Corps and said, 'Get back here. We can save this town.' They were here the next day. Then, the National Guard came, and the Coast Guard came."

Pembina, a town of 650, sits in a precarious location in the northeastern corner of North Dakota, a mile from the Canadian border. It's at the lowest elevation in the state.

It also is located at the confluence of the Pembina and Red rivers, both of which were in the midst of recor floods at the time. Pembina is protected by a rink dike that ties into a concrete levee that protects the main part of the city.

On April 24, water spilling from the rivers was 18 inches deep across Interstate 29.

Except for people working on the dike, the town was evacuated.

"It was real eerie when they evacuated the town," Hetty Walker said.

In a plan similar to one undertaken 20 miles to the south in Drayton, N.D., community leaders decided to build a plywood extension to the concrete section of the downtown dike. With the concrete forming the base, they were able to secure plywood to both sides of the dike and fill the space with sandbags.

The weather service ultimately lowered the crest by 4 feet, as crews were putting the finishing touches on the dike raises.

The Red finally crested at 54.95 feet, about a foot higher than the 1979 record crest.

But it wasn't a total victory.

South Pembina, a wedge-shaped piece of land between the Pembina and Red rivers, flooded when water topped a dike along the Red.

The floodwaters inundated 21 homes, mostly mobile homes, as well as the historic St. John's Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a handful of historic buildings and the Lamoure Memorial Golf Course.

"It was so sad to see all that water over those mobile homes," said Hetty Walker, who now serves on the Pembina County Commission.

Rebuild, Renew

When the floodwaters finally receded, people in Pembina started putting their lives back together. They were grateful that most of the community had escaped serious damage.

They cleaned. They evaluated their flood preparations and their response.

They wrote a new flood emergency manual, which they review each spring, before the snow begins to melt.

They started to strengthen their flood protection system. And they started to build and rebuild.

"We learned a lot from that flood," Hetty Walker said. "The best thing was that we learned there are so many good people. They came from everywhere."