1997 Red River flood

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1997 Red River flood
Sorlie bridge 1997.jpg
The Sorlie Bridge connecting Grand Forks and East Grand Forks became submerged on April 17
Date April 1997
Deaths 0
Property damage $3.5 billion[1]
Part of a series on the
Red River of the North
Major Floods
Related Topics

The Red River flood of 1997 was a major flood that occurred in April and May 1997, along the Red River of the North in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Southern Manitoba. It was the most severe flood of the river since 1826. The flood reached throughout the Red River Valley, affecting the cities of Fargo and Winnipeg, but none so greatly as in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, where floodwaters reached over 3 miles (4.8 km) inland, inundating virtually everything in the twin communities. Total damages for the Red River region were US$3.5 billion.

The flood was the result of abundant snowfall and extreme temperatures.

Flooding in Manitoba resulted in over $500 million in damages, although the Red River Floodway, an artificial waterway affectionately known as "Duff's Ditch" saved Winnipeg from flooding. This flood stimulated improvements to the flood protection system.

In Grand Forks, thousands of people, including Air Force personnel from Grand Forks Air Force Base prepared for the flood by building sandbag dikes. These dikes were constructed based on a 49-foot estimate of flooding set by the National Weather Service, the river crested at 54 feet in Grand Forks. Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens had to order the evacuation of over 50,000 people as a large portion of the city was flooded. A large fire started in Grand Forks, engulfing eleven buildings and sixty apartment units before being extinguished.

Those affected by the flood in the U.S. received donations from across the nation, along with billions in federal aid. City officials and flood-forecasters were criticized for the difference in estimates and actual flood levels. Grand Forks and East Grand Forks built new dikes to prevent damages from future floods and began to rebuild around the river, developing a campground recreation area, park, and shopping districts where homes once stood.

Previous floods[edit]

A before and after view of a building that caught fire in downtown Grand Forks during the 1997 Red River flood.

The Red River in Manitoba and the U.S. States of Minnesota and North Dakota has flooded repeatedly through the centuries, endangering lives and property. The river is highly prone to flooding because of its northward flow. As spring approaches, the snow is melted from south to north alongside the riverflow. There is also the possibility that the surplus water can hit unmelted ice on the river and back up. The flatness of the terrain and small slope of the river is a significant factor.

Floods occurred in both 1948 and 1950. The 1950 flood reached a high of 30 ft (9.2 m) at Winnipeg—causing the largest evacuation in Canada's history of 100,000 people and $606 million CAD (1997) of damage, prompting the government of Manitoba to set up flood safety measures.[2]

The first known records of floods along the Red River appeared in the 1770s. Severe floods occurred throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with one of the most recent major floods occurring in 1979.[3] Homes not damaged in that flood were incorrectly assumed to be safe from a future flood.


North Dakota and Minnesota[edit]

The Red River forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. A few sets of "sister cities" sit directly on this border, with the most devastated by the floodwaters being Grand Forks, North Dakota and its counterpart East Grand Forks, Minnesota, although other pairs saw significant flooding and damage as well, including Fargo, North Dakota/Moorhead, Minnesota (Fargo-Moorhead) and Wahpeton, North Dakota/Breckenridge, Minnesota. Much of the flooding occurred not only from the rising river, but from overland flooding, as the flooded Red River was unable to drain meltwater away, necessitating dikes on both the riverfront and around the edges of towns.

There was some sense of imminent threat in Grand Forks, but the cities could not prepare for such an enormous flood. The National Weather Service (NWS) had a long-standing forecast for the river to crest at 49 feet (14.9 m),[4] which was the river's highest level during the 1979 flood.[5] The cities had been able to get their dikes to this level, but the river continued to rise past it, to the astonishment of the NWS (which didn't upgrade its forecast until April 16, the day the river actually reached 49 feet).[4][6] The dikes in the low-lying Lincoln Drive neighborhood of Grand Forks were the first to break, doing so early on April 18.[7] Other dikes over Grand Forks and East Grand Forks area failed that day and the next, flooding thousands of homes. During this time, Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens ordered the evacuation of over 50,000 people, which up to that time, had been the largest evacuation in the United States since the evacuation of residents in Atlanta, Georgia during the Civil War.[8]

Grand Forks after a levee overtopped and Grand Forks was evacuated

Water reached areas over two miles (3 km) away from the Red River, necessitating the evacuation of all of East Grand Forks and 75% of Grand Forks. School was canceled in both cities for the remainder of the term, as were classes at the University of North Dakota.[9] Because all transportation was cut off between the two cities (and for many miles, the two states), East Grand Forks residents were evacuated to nearby Crookston, namely to the University of Minnesota Crookston, while residents of Grand Forks, who were given mandatory evacuation orders on April 18, went to Grand Forks Air Force Base (residents stayed in airplane hangars containing more than 3,000 cots).[10][11][12] Many residents also evacuated to motels and homes in neighboring communities. The river crested at 54.35 feet (16.6 m) on April 21 and the river level did not fall below 49 feet (14.9 m) until April 26.[13] Because water drained so slowly out of the most low-lying areas, some homeowners couldn't visit their damaged property until May. By May 30, the Red River had receded below flood stages everywhere in North Dakota.[14]


Red River Floodway near Winnipeg

The province of Manitoba completed the Red River Floodway in 1968 after six years of excavation, put up permanent dikes in eight towns south of Winnipeg, and built clay dikes and diversion dams in the Winnipeg area. Other flood control structures completed later were the Portage Diversion and the Shellmouth Dam on the Assiniboine. However, even with these flood protection measures, in 1997 the province experienced a flood of 21.6 ft (6.6 m), which caused 28,000 people to be evacuated and $500 million CAD in damage to property and infrastructure.[15][16]

The 1997 flood was a 100-year flood. It came close to overcoming Winnipeg's existing flood protection system.[17] At the time, the Winnipeg Floodway was designed to protect against a flow 60,000 cu ft/s (1,700 m3/s), but the 1997 flow was 63,000 cu ft/s (1,800 m3/s). To compensate, the province broke operational rules for the floodway, as defined in legislation, during the night of April 30 / May 1, preventing waters in Winnipeg from rising above the designed limit of 24.5 ft (7.5 m) above the "James Avenue datum", but causing additional flooding upriver. The mayor of Winnipeg, announcing what should have been the bad news that the design limit had been reached, misinterpreted this as good news that the flooding had peaked. City sand-bagging stopped, and national reporters left the city, but the water continued to rise inside and outside of the city[18] until the actual peak late on May 3 / early on May 4. The city sometimes claims the peak occurred on May 1,[19] while more scientific reports record a peak on May 3/4.[20]

Towns upriver of Winnipeg, forewarned by footage of Grand Forks buildings burning and covered in meters of water, built ring dikes to protect their homes and properties. The province of Manitoba called in the Canadian Forces, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the provincial Department of Natural Resources. Many people also chose to evacuate, including residents from Morris who had only two days notice to evacuate to Winnipeg. Thousands of volunteers also helped to build sandbag dikes around homes and property.[17] An emergency dike, later called the Brunkild Z-dike, 42 km (26 mi) long, was constructed in a matter of days at a cost of $10 million (CAD) when it was realized that overland flooding threatened the city of Winnipeg.[21]

Almost all of the ring dikes around the towns held, except for Ste. Agathe. The town's dike system was prepared for the river approaching from the south, but the river had spread and swamped the town from the west.[15] At the flood's peak in Canada on May 4, the Red River occupied an area of 1,840 km2 (710 mi2) with more than 2,560 km2 (990 mi2) of land underwater, which earned it the nickname "Red Sea".[16]

While the flooding was still underway, the federal Liberal government led by Jean Chrétien called a snap election. Several of the party's MPs from the province, including Reg Alcock, requested a delay until the flooding was under control.[22] When Chrétien let the election go ahead as originally planned, Alcock transformed his campaign office into a volunteer relief centre, spending his time in relief efforts instead of campaigning, and won re-election.[23][24]


In July, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and American President Bill Clinton appointed the International Red River Basin Task Force containing members of both countries. The task force's purpose was to find ways to improve flood forecasting.[16][25]

The province of Manitoba asked the International Joint Commission (IJC) to provide a report on the flood event and to recommend measures to ensure further flood protection for the city of Winnipeg.[16] Largely as a result of this study, the province has been widening the floodway since 2004.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shelby, p. 149
  2. ^ "A city submerged: Winnipeg and the flood of 1950". CBC. Retrieved September 17, 2007. 
  3. ^ "A History of Flooding in the Red River Basin" (PDF). USGS. Retrieved October 3, 2007. 
  4. ^ a b "Flood of criticism from 1997 floods: Did faulty forecasts add to disaster?". USA Today. November 10, 1999. Retrieved November 3, 2007. 
  5. ^ "Record floods along the Red River in 1997". USA Today. November 10, 1999. Retrieved November 3, 2007. 
  6. ^ Shelby, p. 60
  7. ^ Shelby, p. 66
  8. ^ Shelby, Ashley (2003). Red River Rising. United States: Borealis Books. p. 102. ISBN 0-87351-500-5. 
  9. ^ "Great Flood of '97". University of North Dakota. Archived from the original on March 11, 2008. Retrieved November 3, 2007. 
  10. ^ Shelby, p. 86
  11. ^ Shelby, p. 121
  12. ^ Jacobs, p. 68
  13. ^ "Grand Forks 1997 Flood Recovery: Facts and Statistics". FEMA. Retrieved October 1, 2007. 
  14. ^ Douglas C. Friez; Kathleen Donahue (March 1998). "North Dakota After Action Report – Historical Perspective". North Dakota Emergency Management. Archived from the original on February 22, 2001. Retrieved October 4, 2007. 
  15. ^ a b Hutton, David (November 1, 2004). "Psychosocial effects of a natural disaster: a post-flood assessment in the red river valley.". Environments. Archived from the original on March 27, 2009. Retrieved November 3, 2007. 
  16. ^ a b c d Etkin, David; Chowdhury Emdadul Haque; Gregory Robert Brooks (2003). An Assessment of Natural Hazards and Disasters in Canada. London: Springer. p. 349. ISBN 1-4020-1179-2. 
  17. ^ a b Fong, Petti (May 5, 2007). "Bracing for the next 'flood of the century'". The Star. Toronto. Retrieved November 3, 2007. 
  18. ^ "none". Winnipeg Free Press. May 3, 1997. 
  19. ^ "Flood of the Century: Chronology of Flood Events – 1997". City of Winnipeg. Retrieved 13 May 2011. 
  20. ^ "Diking Commissioner's Reports". Retrieved 13 May 2011. 
  21. ^ "1997's 'Z-dike' showcased province's flood-fighting machine". CBC News. April 25, 2007. 
  22. ^ Lett, Dan (April 15, 1997). "MPs want vote delayed". Winnipeg Free Press. 
  23. ^ Robertson, Bud (April 29, 1997). "Politicians unite against flood". Winnipeg Free Press. 
  24. ^ Harper, Tim (April 29, 1997). "McDonough says election call 'insensitive'". Toronto Star. 
  25. ^ Shelby, p. 139

Further reading[edit]

  • Jacobs, Mike, Ed. (August 1997). Come Hell & High Water. Grand Forks, North Dakota: Grand Forks Herald. ISBN 0-9642860-2-5. 
  • Galloway, Gerald E.; Clamen, Murray (2000). Living with the Red: A Report to the Governments of Canada & the U.S. on Reducing Flood Impacts in the Red River Basin. Diane Publishing. ISBN 0-7567-0802-8. 
  • Shelby, Ashley (April 2004). Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City. St. Paul, Minnesota: Borealis Books. ISBN 0-87351-500-5. 
  • "Red Cross Is Accused Of Misusing Flood Relief". Retrieved January 1, 2016. 

External links[edit]