What caused this spring's widespread floods? Can such destruction be prevented in the future? What lessons were learned — and NOT learned — by this disaster? Read the answers in this on-the-spot report from the major flood areas.
THE pattern was all too familiar. Heavy rains had saturated the soil last fall before the winter freeze. Snow came early and in record or near-record amounts. More than one hundred inches fell in many areas of the Northern Great Plains. To make matters worse, the water content of the snow was extremely high — and natural ponding areas were already generally full. Winter stream-flow of many rivers was averaging more than twice the normal flow. Months before the spring thaw began; it was obvious what was coming.
Preparing for the Inevitable
In Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin and northern Iowa, cities, towns and farms along the Red River of the North, the upper Mississippi, the Mouse, the Big Sioux, the St. Croix, the Minnesota — and dozens of other rivers and streams — prepared for the inevitable as best they could. Time was precious and everyone knew it. Quickly the Army Corps of Engineers seized the initiative and organized the flood fight. In cooperation with local communities, Operation Foresight — a plan of emergency preparation and action — was launched. The Corps agreed to supply the know-how and to let the contracts for the building of emergency dikes if local communities would supply rights of way, fill, volunteer labor, etc. The speed and efficiency with which Operation Foresight was carried out exceeded all expectations. Colonel Hesse of the St. Paul Corps of Engineers office said, "I frankly didn't feel we could move with the dispatch that we did. I suspect we mobilized more equipment faster than has ever been done anywhere at any time." Some 72 miles of temporary dikes were constructed in only twenty days! A total of 110 miles of dikes were built. And then — after days of tense waiting — the floods came. As the rivers pushed to their crests, our staff members travelled to the major critical areas to bring our readers the unique coverage for which The PLAIN TRUTH is known. Our purpose is not only to report what happened, but also to explain why it happened and what it means.
Fargo-Moorhead Fights the Flood
Our first destination was the Red River of the North which forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. Arriving in Fargo late at night, we found a six-foot emergency dike literally at the door of our motel! The Red River — climbing to its highest crest in 72 years — was rushing by several feet above the level of the street we were standing on! We didn't mind it a bit that our rooms were on an upper floor. Half a block down the street we noticed considerable activity and went to see what was taking place. A leak in the dike was developing right in front of the city hall and frantic efforts were being made to stop it. In the eerie artificial light dozens of volunteers — mostly young men — were feverishly unloading sandbags from a huge truck and trying to plug the leak. Their efforts were successful. The leak was stayed. It was obvious that many of the volunteers and officials had put in long hours and were dead tired. Paradoxically, just two blocks away the bars were still open and filled with as many customers as usual — all seemingly oblivious to the danger and drama which was taking place just around the corner. The next morning the Fargo and Moorhead Police Departments graciously arranged for us to survey the flooded area by boat. Fargo already had had a permanent levee in critical areas of the city. In preparation for the flood, it had been shored up and extended. The city purchased about six houses which were in the area of the dike extension. Several of these were moved and the rest were sacrificed to the flood. Moorhead was not so well prepared and the damage was more severe on that side of the river. We shook our heads in disbelief as we saw dozens of houses immersed in swirling water — some up to their roofs — and were informed that in certain parts of these low-lying areas this was almost an annual occurrence. One man boasted that he had been flooded out of his home more than thirty times! Another — whose house was now under water — had just put $7,000 in improvements into his home! But it was even more amazing to learn about the better class of newer homes — some in the $100,000 category — which were flooded in suburbs to the south! As the water climbed higher, rats were driven from their sewer sanctuaries and became somewhat of a problem — but not to the great extent rumored. Chief Anderson of the Fargo Police Department said tourists and rumors were a far bigger menace than the rats. Many Fargo-Moorhead citizens were impressed by the way the young people had responded to the crisis. Their volunteer labor had undoubtedly prevented millions of dollars' worth of damage. Others were not so all-inclusive in their praise. They said that while many of the young people did work hard, a number of the hippies were so unaccustomed to work that they were more of a hindrance than a help. Some hippies said they would let the whole establishment go down the river before they would lift a finger to help.
Surveying the Red River by Air
The next morning we flew down the river by air. (Down happens to be north on the Red River which flows into Canada) Part of our team went by helicopter in order to survey the area at a lower altitude and to get closer pictures. At one time the broad floodplain of the Red River was glacial Lake Agassiz. This morning it was again a lake — 150 miles long and from eight to twelve miles wide where the river was cresting. More than 210,000 acres of fertile farmland were inundated. Operation Foresight could do little in these rural areas. Many old-timers said the property damage on farms hit by this flood was the worst they had ever seen — and living on the Red River they had seen many. On literally hundreds of farms we saw buildings, machinery and haystacks under several feet of brown, murky water — and sometimes more. Livestock were seen huddled together on the few remaining patches of dry ground. Some farmers had successfully diked their houses; others hadn't even tried. One farmer, for example, lost 21 head of dairy cattle. Another lost a bin full of soybeans. The beans became wet and expanded, literally "blowing up" the beans and the bin. Other farm losses included buildings, pollution of wells, damage to roads and fences, and the cost of cleaning up debris. Many of these losses are extremely difficult to assess and do not appear on any official statistic. Some farmers were reported to have dynamited and bulldozed roads and culverts to keep water off their land or to get rid of it. This hurt other farmers who were angrily trying to press legal action. Though individual losses were sometimes very high, a Department of Agriculture official explained to us that actual damage to most farms was probably not as bad as it looked. The big concern was that the water would recede in time to permit planting before it was too late in the relatively short growing season. Rain or other unfavorable weather which would keep farmers from getting into the fields would be a far greater disaster than the flood as far as the majority of the farmers were concerned. North of Grand Forks, the little town of Oslo, Minnesota (pop. 440) was high and dry. A dike — constructed in 1966 — ringed the village which was now an island in a twelve-mile-wide lake. Oslo stood out in sharp contrast to several other villages along the riverbed. Perley, Minnesota (pop. 165), for example, had no protection and a foot of water flowed through the highest parts of the village. Perley is located more than one mile from the Red River channel and no one could remember the village being flooded before. Some blamed the Army Corps of Engineers for Perley's plight, others blamed the village fathers, and yet others were silent — as if in disbelief that it could happen to them. In the Riverside Park area of Grand Forks, tempers were rising faster than the river's crest. Some citizens had opposed any dike which would harm their lawns and obstruct their view of the river. Now about fifty homes — among the cities finest — were under water and, it seemed, nearly everyone was blaming everybody else.
The Mouse that Roared
When our staff arrived in Minot, the city was between crests of the Mouse River. Winding down from Canada where it is called the Souris (French for "mouse"), the river was delivering a soggy one-two punch. The Des Lacs and Mouse rivers meet eight miles north of the city. While an ice jam in Canada slowed the flow of the Mouse, the Des Lacs reached its crest and came storming into the city. Crest number two — the bigger one by several feet — came from the Mouse and was a week behind. This prolonged the anguish, but gave the city time to prepare for it. Flooding on the Mouse is quite infrequent, and Minot had little flood protection. Because the Mouse traverses some twelve miles as it meanders through the four-mile-wide city, it was an impossibility to construct emergency dikes along the 24 miles of riverbank. Such a project would take several months. The city therefore chose to protect its public facilities by dikes, to arrange for the evacuation of those who needed it, and to let everyone else shift for themselves. One person who shifted for himself was the owner of a small shopping center on the riverfront. Trucks and bulldozers were roaring and snorting as men worked around the clock to ring the area with a dike. Some of the drivers had already been working for 24 hours and the end was not in sight. The owner explained to us that the work which was under way was costing him $300 per hour. He estimated it would cost $16,000 to dike up the shopping center and another $5,000 to haul the dirt away — all of it coming out of his pocket. At least one homeowner declared himself a "personal disaster area" and turned in his house keys to the mortgage company. Others were determined to save their homes at all costs. They made sandbags from any material available — including colorful cast-off clothing. The owner of a $75,000 home built a seven-foot dike around his house and reinforced it on the side facing the river with wood and plastic sheeting. He put a boat on top of the dike and waited for the crest. Most of his neighbors had abandoned their homes. One had left for California and would not return until the flood was over. Some 3,000 homes occupied by 12,000 people were evacuated. This was one-third of the inhabitants of Minot. Total damage is estimated at about $20,000,000 — an average of more than $600 for every one of the 35,000 persons living in Minot. The flood this spring was the biggest since 1929 and second in size only to the record flood of 1904. Though this early flood had a higher crest, only 4,000 people lived in Minot in 1904. In an interview with Mayor Johnson we asked if he thought the flood would have any long-range effects on the city. He did not think so. Most flood victims would return to their homes and forget all about it — until the next flood. In some river-front areas, property values would fluctuate for a while, the mayor speculated, but before long all would be back to normal. "Flood conditions are one of the shortest-lived memories which people have," he said. After what we had seen we were inclined to agree.
Big Sioux on the Warpath
To the south, the Big Sioux had already produced what officials called the worst flood of the century. Entire villages on this South-Dakota-Iowa borderline river had to be evacuated. As in the Red River basin, thousands of square miles of rich farmland were inundated. At Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a channel had been built to divert excess water from the Big Sioux around the city in times of flooding. This year wooden extensions several feet high had to be attached to the top of the diversion channel to keep it from spilling over — and it looked bad for a while. But the system worked far better than officials had dared to expect. About fifty homes were flooded when a dike broke, but even this was small compared to what might have been.
The Upper Mississippi
At St. Paul the Mississippi stretched toward its 1965 record crest of 26.1 feet — and then drew back 1.6 feet shy of the mark. More than one million gallons per second flowed down the river at its crest. This is fully fifteen times the normal rate and about one and one-half times the maximum flow that is expected once every fifty years. Riverside roads in St. Paul were under several feet of water as were the train depot and the downtown airport. Several inches of water were reported in the sub-basement of the main post office building which also happens to house the Headquarters for the St. Paul District of the Army Corps of Engineers. As the 50-mile-long crest of the Mississippi moved slowly south, most of the river towns were ready. Many already had permanent levees and these were now being reinforced. Temporary emergency dikes were being built in many critical areas. As the crest meandered toward the Gulf of Mexico, it gradually spread out and lost its momentum and the big Mississippi flood of 1969 was over.
Summing It Up
It would be impossible to catalog and chronicle what happened along each flooded river and in all the river cities and towns. But as Governor Guy said when requesting to President Nixon that North Dakota be declared a disaster area: "Destruction in many communities is greater than any in history." Perhaps the most impressive characteristic of the disaster was that flooding occurred in so many rivers spread out over such a wide area. It is true that big rivers like the Red and Mississippi did not reach an all-time high, though they came very close. But to have the Red, the Mississippi, the Mouse, the Big Sioux, the St. Croix, the Minnesota, the West Des Moines, the Blue Earth, the James, the Cheyenne, and many others all flood to near-record (and some to record) proportions at the same time was quite unusual. The most extensive damage by far was in the St. Paul District which included most of the critical areas in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and some parts of Iowa, South Dakota and upper Michigan. The damage caused by the spring floods was also near-record when considering the overall total, and record when considering agricultural and transportation damages. In the St. Paul district total damage stood at well over $100,000,000! Of this amount, a record $40,000,000 was lost by agriculture and a record $29, 000,000 was lost by transportation (roads, railroads, etc). Though $24,000,000 in damages were suffered in urban areas, this was less than half the $55,000,000 record loss sustained in 1965. It was in the urban areas that Operation Foresight really paid off. In the St. Paul District, it cost more than $8,000,000 to build 82 miles of emergency dikes, provide 5,800,000 sandbags and more than 40 miles of plastic sheeting, to pump water, dynamite ice jams, and carry out all the other flood-fighting activities of Operation Foresight. But that $8,000,000 was well spent. Operation Foresight saved an estimated $200,000,000 in damages! Even with Operation Foresight, the damage was bad enough. Without it, the results would have been far more tragic.
Will It Happen Again?
The 1969 spring floods in the Northern U.S. are now history. But what about future years? Is there any way to prevent these disasters? What causes floods of this magnitude? Are poor soil and water conservation practices to blame, as some claim? Man's ruthless and greedy activities in destroying, polluting and depleting our land and water resources are not to be minimized. What man has done to the earth is a disgrace and a tragedy. Our colorful free booklet, Our Polluted Planet, makes this point clear. Some activities of man undoubtedly do affect and upset the entire weather pattern to some degree. In this sense, man does contribute excesses of weather which cause flooding. The plains should have been allowed to retain more grass cover and mountains more forest cover to slow the runoff from snow melt and rains. The fact remains, however, that no amount of soil and water conservation practice can completely prevent floods like those experienced this spring in any flat floodplain. As Colonel Hesse of the Army Corps of Engineers said while surveying the flooded area by air, "These floods are not man-made. When you get up in the air and look at it, you can see that man has very little to do with causing a flood of this type." Floods were occurring in the 1800's — long before man's activities had any significant influence. Some of these flat valleys should have been treated as floodplains, as the river Nile is. "Man doesn't make big floods like this," said another official. "Nature does. All that man should do is get out of the way." That would be a good idea — and a partial solution. Man should have stayed out of the way. Buildings on a flood-plain should be on stilts or mounds.
Many Live in High-Risk Areas
It may come as a surprise, but government surveys show that an estimated ten percent of American families live in floodplains or coastal areas subject to periodic hurricanes and other storms! That is 20,000,000 people! People who live in floodplains ought to expect to experience flooding. It's a simple matter of cause and effect. "A flood is a natural phenomenon which we all should recognize. It is nature's way of carrying off an excess flow of water," an engineer told us. Some floodplains are more prone to regular flooding than others. Naturally, you would expect frequent flooding in the very lowest parts of a flood-plain near the river. Higher up the plain farther from the river it might flood once every five to ten years, still higher only once every 25 to 50 years, and higher yet perhaps only once each century. When these high marks will be reached — and how frequently — is of course quite unpredictable. But obviously, the surest way to avoid floods is to get out of a flood-plain! Yet the Army Corps of Engineers says that many people who experience frequent floods are not even aware that they are living in a floodplain! For some, it may not be economically possible to move to another location. For many, however, it would be possible. Some cities even offer to move homes free and to pay relocation costs — but the people persist in living in the same flood-prone area. If a person feels the benefits of living or doing business in a vulnerable area is worth the risk involved, then he should be prepared to pay the consequences when a flood comes. It is one thing to help someone in real need. It is quite another to continually assist those who have been warned and who will not help themselves. Why, some ask, should those who are careful to live in a safe area be penalized, financially, for the stubbornness and greed of those who don't? The Army Corps of Engineers has long urged floodplain zoning. They feel that high-risk areas in floodplains should be turned into parks or some other purpose where property damage in time of flooding would not be severe. Now, finally, some are beginning to listen.
Will Dams Solve the Problem?
Another major solution urged by some is the building of flood-control dams. But this is a tragically shortsighted solution that ignores all the lessons of history. Dams which give temporary flood control can be built — at a tremendous price. Such dams take thousands of acres of rich bottom land out of production. Then, after a few years, they silt up. Right now there are over 2,000 dams in the U.S. which are useless impoundments of sand, gravel and silt. When a dam silts up, often the course of action is to build more dams farther up the river to relieve the pressure. This takes more precious land out of production and the vicious cycle continues. No, dams are not the real solution to the flood problem. The great agricultural nations of old — which are useless deserts today — testify to that. But what, then, is the solution to violent floods?
The Only Real Solution
What causes floods of the magnitude and scope described in this article? Nature does! And who controls nature? God does! God controls everything in the universe — and that includes nature and the weather. In the world today God is allowing nature and the weather to work against man — to be man's foe instead of his friend. But in the wonderful world tomorrow which is just around the corner, all this will be changed. God will change the weather patterns so that perfect and ideal weather will be the rule and not the exception. Our free booklet The Wonderful World Tomorrow gives a complete description of what conditions will be like in that breathtaking world. Before that wonderful world can begin, however, man must first learn some important lessons. He must learn that he is incapable of governing himself. He must learn that he is not self-sufficient — that he needs the wisdom and help of God. One of the first rules of learning is that you must have the student's attention. Right now man is not willing to give God his attention so that he can learn what he ought. But very shortly God is going to bring about circumstances that positively will get man's attention. The disastrous floods of this spring ought to be taken as a warning of what is yet to come. But how many looked at it this way?
A Warning Ignored?
The spirit of cooperation which saved hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property and untold suffering was certainly commendable. But the success of these efforts can also lead to a deadly dangerous attitude. It can make people feel proud, self-sufficient and falsely secure. It can make them feel that their own way of life is satisfactory and that there is no need to change it for something much better. For example, one farm family that waged a hard-won battle against the flood with only the aid of two families of hired help laughed at the people in town who called on others for help. They were proud that they didn't need help from anybody. Just because six or seven people had cooperated in sandbagging a house and in living together for several days, they told us, "This has revived our faith in human nature. Now we know we can see our way through anything." Was the cooperation a bad thing? No. Was it bad that the house had been saved? Of course not. But the attitude they let their success breed was a tragedy. Can you imagine what it's going to take to break an outlook like that? — and it will be broken. Experience is NOT the best teacher. Experience is often a vicious, tragic teacher. But it is the only way some will learn. Today's floods and droughts are but a very small prelude of natural disasters to come. But why learn the hard way? You can learn the lessons you should an easier way. Read our free article "There is a Way of Escape." It describes how you can be protected in the tumultuous days ahead.