Worst of Times Brings Out Best in People
Minnesota Water Operators Respond to the Floods of 1997

From the Fall 1997 Waterline, the quarterly newsletter of the Minnesota Department of Health Public Water Supply Unit, © Waterline, Minnesota Department of Health

East Grand Forks Flood PhotoEveryone knew they were coming. But no one could anticipate the fury with which they would strike.

The floods of 1997 left many cities in Minnesota reeling as they displaced residents and interrupted services. One necessity that persevered almost without fail, however, was a supply of potable water. It was through the heroic efforts of water supply operators in the affected communities—many of whom had their own personal tragedies to deal with—as well as a different type of flood, a flood of volunteers from all parts of the state, that allowed communities to carry on.

It wasn’t that no one had prepared. Residents and city officials knew it was going to be a bad spring for flooding and did what they could to keep the waters back. The first cities threatened were those along the Minnesota River, where cresting was expected for the second week in April. But changing weather first moved up the predicted dates for the crest, then exacerbated attempts to fight it.

Montevideo
Montevideo residents felt everything was under control until noon on Thursday, April 3. It had been a pleasant week for weather—too pleasant as it turned out since it caused heavier than expected snow melts upstream. Not only would this cause the high waters to hit even sooner, it altered the direction from which they would be coming. Byron Hayunga, the city’s utilities superintendent, said they thought the water would come down the Minnesota River—cresting at 21 feet, seven feet above flood stage—backing up the Chippewa River, which converges with the Minnesota River in Montevideo, against a spillway. But warmer temperatures to the northeast of Montevideo created a growing run-off into rivers and creeks that empty into the Chippewa River. “We were prepared for the Minnesota [River] side,” said Hayunga, “but when the weather turned nice to the north of us, it came down the Chippewa, sort of in the back door on us.”

The utility had planned on beginning work on a two-foot-high dike to surround the pumphouse on Friday, April 4th, but news of the impending crest caused them to rush the process, completing the initial section on Thursday. “As we were building the dike, we could see the river coming up,” Hayunga said, “so late afternoon on Thursday, I turned on one of the wells by hand to keep the reservoirs full.”

The rush job on the dike was successful, but workers could see they weren’t done yet. Four feet were added on Saturday and another two feet on Sunday after word was received that the crest would be two feet higher than expected. “Montevideo went back to the pump station twice to build the dike up,” said John Blomme, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) field engineer who serves the area. “They realized on Saturday that the dike was still too small, so overnight they built it up again, barely keeping it above the water.” The dike eventually consisted of three sections totaling eight feet in height.

The mild weather that accelerated the flood schedule didn’t last. The majority of sandbagging was done in brutal conditions over the weekend with two inches of rain on Saturday followed by 50 mile per hour winds that created a ground blizzard on Sunday.

Montevideo’s water system remained operational, although a boil order was issued as a precaution. “Their overflow was taking on river water, so it was coming back through the system through the ground reservoir,” explains Blomme. “Their biggest problem with the water was that their overflow was in the water to begin with, so they never had a chance to get down and put a plug in it before the water rose. They could bank up to keep the water out, but they couldn’t find a way to plug the overflow, so it was taking on water.” The boil order remained in effect for approximately ten days.

Granite Falls
Meanwhile, a dozen miles downstream on the Minnesota River, volunteer crews in Granite Falls were underway with similar efforts to save the city and retain services. The weekend storms not only interfered with their sandbagging but also paralyzed travel in the area, making it difficult for outside help to reach the city. Two neighborhoods in Granite Falls were evacuated as volunteers worked through the bad weather and continued on Monday when the weather cleared. Residents, National Guardsman, and out-of-town volunteers labored side-by-side, occasionally gazing skyward to marvel at Comet Hale-Bopp, with their work resulting in 500 yards of 12-foot levees along Minnesota Avenue and shorter dikes lining Prentice Avenue across the Minnesota River.

Although the city had been saved, fears over contaminated drinking water had already led to the issuance of a boil order. Blomme emphasized that the boil order was a precautionary measure and not the result of any positive samples. Water superintendent Darrell Opdahl explained that they were mainly concerned with their clearwell, which is separated from the river by a retaining wall. Opdahl recalls a devastating flood in 1969 when flood waters lapped at the edges, but did not reach the top, of the clearwell. With that in mind, Opdahl and his crews did what they could to protect the clearwell. “We wrapped the whole thing in plastic and sealed off the covers and overflows so if the water did come over, nothing would get in,” Opdahl said, adding that, “It was virtually impossible to seal it off totally.”

The water did reach the top of the clearwell on Sunday, April 6, tearing the plastic covering in many places. Opdahl contacted Blomme at home and asked him to survey the situation. Because of concerns over Cryptosporidium and Giardia as a result of the infiltration, Blomme issued a boil order, which remained in effect until April 16.

Opdahl said they sampled constantly from the clearwell to monitor the turbidity levels and make sure there was adequate chlorination. “The only thing that changed was the turbidity reading in the clearwell,” he said, “but there was no detection of fecal coliforms in the samples from the distribution system.”

As Montevideo and Granite Falls were hanging on, rising waters were taking aim at other areas.

Ada became the first Minnesota city to be almost fully evacuated on Monday, April 7. Nearly 75 percent of the 1,700 residents cleared out after two normally shallow rivers overran the banks, spread overland, and poured into homes. If that wasn’t bad enough, temperatures plummeted overnight, creating additional damage as the water froze.

The freezing weather actually brought relief to residents in Ortonville as it eased fears that the Big Stone Lake dam, which controls the flow of water into the Minnesota River, might wash out.

However, in most cases, the nasty weather worsened, rather than alleviated, already dire conditions. In Breckenridge, three inches of rain and snow that fell overnight on Sunday, April 7, overwhelmed dikes along the Red River of the North and caused the evacuation of 400 residents.

The Crests Continue
Despite crest predictions that were being revised upward on a daily basis for the Minnesota River at New Ulm, the city’s water supply continued uninterrupted, thanks to a strategic decision to take four wells out of service and concentrate efforts on saving the other wellhouses. “Based on our demand at that time of the year, we didn’t need those wells,” said the city’s water/steam distribution supervisor, George Brown. With the help of the National Guard, crews from the water utility used boats to sandbag the wellhouses over the weekend of April 6-7. Brown said they remained in regular contact with MDH engineer Mark Sweers, who twice visited the site, and determined there was no need for a boil order. By mid-week, the situation with the water supply had stabilized, and National Guard personnel shifted their efforts to the city’s main levee, which was undermined and in danger of failing on Wednesday, April 9. Two hours of furious sandbagging sealed the breach.

The same energy was being expended farther north, in the North Dakota and Minnesota cities adjacent to the Red River of the North.

The efforts increased in Moorhead and Fargo as an ice jam 20 miles downstream (to the north) prompted revisions of earlier forecasts that the river would crest at 6-12 inches below levees to a prediction that the crest would end up 6-12 inches above the levees. Residents who thought they had completed their sandbagging duties were back at it again to raise the dike by another foot. They completed their task, only to learn that an iced-up gauge in the river had overestimated the height of water moving toward the cities, making the final surge of sandbagging unnecessary.

Despite this experience, those in the next cities to feel the brunt, East Grand Forks and Grand Forks, were not about to underestimate what was coming. Volunteers worked without interruption to keep the Red River, as well as the Red Lake River in East Grand Forks, within the confines of their growing walls of sandbags. They had been fighting the valiant battle since late March and had persevered through the same brutal storms that had hampered other communities the first weekend of April.

However, this was to be a case where even a maximum effort turned out to be not enough.

East Grand Forks
On Friday, April 18, the Red River of the North turned into a lake as it overcame dikes, leaving vast devastation on both sides. A mass evacuation of East Grand Forks began as most of the city was soon to be underwater. Among those leaving were three water utility workers from Thief River Falls, Allen Lamm, Steve Hams, and Wayne Johnson, who had come down to check on the conditions at the East Grand Forks water treatment plant. Since the afternoon of Thursday, April 17th, they had staffed dike flood pumps, providing relief to exhausted East Grand Forks personnel. By late Friday evening, the pumps were all under water. “The drive out of town was eerie,” recalls Lamm. “Flood water was 18 inches deep in the street. We had to guess where the street actually was.”

Exhausted and angry as the river chased them out, the trio swore to come back—with an army. One week later, the army arrived: volunteers from all over the state, coordinated through an effort of the Minnesota Section of the American Water Works Association (AWWA).

In between, much happened at East Grand Forks as plant operators worked midnight to midnight shifts, putting aside personal issues (many of these workers lost their own homes) and focusing on continuing to serve their community.

While Lamm, Hams, and Johnson were dealing with the pumps, a thinning East Grand Forks crew had worked well into the evening of April 18, erecting a ring dike around the water plant. In addition to utilities general manager Dan Boyce, water plant superintendent Gary Hultberg, and operators Mike Weisinger and Sterling Bottomley, the group included Jeff Olson and Todd Grabinski, who worked with the city’s electrical utility and water distribution. Olson had been recruited to help with water supply during the emergency, and he, in turn, recruited others. One was a friend, Mike Coauette, who had been doing a lot of voluntary sandbagging through the city. Coauette came over to help with the efforts at the water plant that night and has been there ever since. He continues to work on an emergency disaster basis through the Federal Emergency Management Association and hopes to secure full-time employment with the utility in distribution.

Meanwhile, Dave Ebertowski, the utility’s lone distribution crew member, was ferrying sandbags around town on a forklift in an effort to protect reservoirs and other components of the distribution system.

Attempts to maintain water service were abandoned on Monday, April 21, as it was no longer possible to maintain pressure on the system. “We could not hold pressure in the system,” says Hultberg. “The water was going out through leaks as fast as we were putting it into the system.”

The initial assessment was that severe watermain breaks were the culprit, but when crews sought to find and isolate the breaks over the coming days, they found that the mains were in good shape. The problem was elsewhere, according to operator Brian Johnson. “The reason we lost the pressure was that we couldn’t hold water in the towers anymore because the vast majority of services into the houses had broken out when the water heaters floated and ripped the plumbing out.” Even though the utility was producing approximately 1,300 gallons per minute of water, it was unable to keep up with demand.

With operations suspended, the focus shifted to saving the plant itself. The sandbagging efforts paid off as the structure remained dry and served as a haven, as well as a rallying center, for the comeback.

The flood water finally began to recede on Tuesday, April 22, but by this time, few people were still around. “It was a strange feeling being out at that time,” recalls Randy Rapacz, one of the operators who stayed to continue working on the utility, even though his own home had been completely submerged. “There was no traffic in town. Everything was shut down, and the only people there were emergency personnel.” No-wake restrictions were in place for the few boats and vehicles in the city to keep the water from sweeping away sandbags that were protecting emergency locations as well as the water plant.

The water plant resumed operations on Friday, April 25. By this time, Jim King, the city’s water and light distribution superintendent, had made the decision to handle electrical service while delegating water restoration to others. Boyce and Hultberg concentrated on operations while Jeff Olson was left to oversee distribution. “It was more than I could fathom,” Olson said of the task facing him. However, he ended up with help in the form of the army that Lamm had promised.

On Saturday, April 19, the morning after Lamm returned home, he had begun making phone calls around the state, only to find that many others in the water industry were doing the same thing. Gerald Mahon, the public works director for St. Cloud, was instrumental in organizing the effort, taking the names of those willing to pitch in, and coordinating the logistics of getting help to East Grand Forks.

The response was overwhelming. During the final week of April, a cadre of volunteers from 11 Minnesota cities—Mary Hiber and Dan Ludden of St. Paul; Joe Munn of Crookston; Lyle Stai and Dale Segler of Willmar; Jeff Knutson and Dave Olmanson of St. Peter; Jim Sweeney and Dan McManus of Inver Grove Heights; Paul Kuehn, Jeff Beilke, and Marv Stueber of New Ulm; Ron Woolery and Rich Winkels of St. Cloud; Pat Conrad and John Violett of Bloomington; Wylie Rindels and Jim Roskos of Rochester; John Thom and Bill LaLonde of Richfield; and Terry Rewertz, Lamm, Johnson, and Hams of Thief River Falls—loaded trucks with equipment and headed for East Grand Forks, not sure of where they would stay, not sure of how they would eat, not sure of what would be facing them. The one thing they were sure of was that the community needed help.

In addition to the utility workers, Larry Cole, an MDH district engineer, moved into the water plant on Friday, April 25th, and made it his home (Cole and the other temporary residents dubbed their quarters the “Hultberg Hilton” after the city’s water plant superintendent) for two weeks, taking a one-day break in the middle of the ordeal when he was spelled by fellow MDH engineer Dave Schultz. Cole and Schultz had already been up to the area, in Schultz’s airplane. On Tuesday, April 22, the two had flown over the area, taking videos that proved to be helpful in determining whether reservoirs in East Grand Forks, as well as in towns and rural water systems to the north, had been flooded and would have to be disinfected.

The information was valuable, particularly in the case of a two-million gallon underground reservoir on an area known as the Point, a finger of land between the Red River and the Red Lake River, in East Grand Forks. Cole said, in addition to the visual inspection, they took bacterial samples, which were negative, and chlorine samples, to ensure that the water still had an adequate residual. They also studied plans to see if flood water could have backed into the overflow. “We measured down to the water level, measured the invert elevation of the overflow, and found the water was three inches below the overflow,” said Cole, “so we could determine that the water hadn’t come into the overflow and backed into the reservoir—and it obviously hadn’t come in the vent structure or the access manhole.

“This [knowledge] saved a lot of time since we could save the two million gallons and begin flushing the Point area with this water rather than having to waste the water, then clean and disinfect the reservoir, which could have taken several days.”

Before dealing with the Point, though, the volunteers began isolating a line extending north to the city’s main water tower. “Our first priority was the restoration of fire protection,” said Lamm, who oversaw the volunteers. “Once we had this line isolated, we began filling it. We spent two-and-a-half days trying to keep that line isolated in addition to isolating sections of the neighborhood where there was water leaking through into the areas we didn’t want it to be in. Once that was done, we kept spreading through the system, taking one section at a time and pressurizing it with heavily chlorinated water. By the time the north half was done, the flood water had receded from the Point, allowing us to continue there. By May 1, we had restored fire protection to 90 percent of the city.”

Cole explained the process in detail. “Street valves to branch mains all had to be shut off. After they started charging the branch watermains, we could determine where there was plumbing damage. At those places, we shut the curb stop off. We worked from hydrant to hydrant, bringing the chlorinated water down to one, then moving on to the next one, opening and closing street valves to control the flow of water.”

After dealing with the line going to the main tower to the north, the volunteers branched out into a residential area between U. S. Hwy. 2 and the water plant, then down toward the business district. The crews tracked their progress on maps on the wall at the treatment plant. “At the end of each day, everyone came in and marked what he or she had gotten done on the map,” said Lamm. “That way, everyone knew what was completed and what we had left to do.”

The volunteers marveled at the energy of the 62-year-old Ebertowski, who worked long hours in the field, helping the crews with locating valves and meters. Back at the plant, Terry Spear and Veronica Kostrzewski staffed the phones, which rang continuously, dealing with callers as well as in-person visitors for both water and electric issues. “These two women dealt with distraught customers with compassion, firmness, and professionalism,” Lamm added. “Theirs was probably the toughest job of all.”

Following restoration of fire protection, the focus shifted to the potability of the water (a boil order was in effect during this period). Virtually all of the more than 400 samples taken were negative. The areas that produced positive samples were kept isolated and dealt with separately.

“Once everything tested clean,” said Lamm, “we went back through and started the process again. The plant made the changeover from free residual chlorine to a chloramine, which is what they normally use.

“We worked through the whole system, flushed it all out again, until we had it all the way through, and then started sampling again.”

On Friday, May 9, the final samples proved to be clean, and, at 4:00 in the afternoon, the boil order was lifted. Much work remained for the devastated city, as well as the utility, but the water supply had survived with minimal interruption.

It was a remarkable feat in itself, but while dealing with its own crisis, East Grand Forks was able to help its North Dakota neighbor by providing water to Grand Forks, thanks to an interconnection between the two cities that had last been used in 1986. “The first two days the East Grand Forks plant was back in operation [April 25 and 26], maintenance staff were pulling the pump motors and contactors of the transfer station on the Point so we could establish the connection to put water into Grand Forks,” explained Cole. Beginning shortly after midnight on Sunday, April 27, the flow between the cities began, continuing for about three-and-a-half hours, long enough to allow Grand Forks to purge the air from its lines and get the plant operating again by the next day.

Residents returning to East Grand Forks were grateful for the efforts of the volunteers, but there was occasional rancor. Any break in operations was expensive for American Crystal Sugar, a large sugar beet producer and a heavy water consumer. However, fire protection and other priorities had to be taken care of before the business community could again be served. “They wanted to resume operations and needed water,” said Lamm, adding that he could understand their anxiety. However, Lamm began feeling pressure when the company sent an official to city hall, urging the city leaders to restore water to the facility. The situation changed, however, when American Crystal Sugar management met personally with Lamm, who showed them the progress maps and flow charts of the restoration plan. “When they understood the extent of the damage and contamination,” Lamm said of American Crystal Sugar, “they offered the full resources and cooperation of their organization. They became team players.”

Jeff Olson explained another concern with American Crystal Sugar. “They put out an edible product. All their processing needed water that was potable.”

The water utility finally began charging American Crystal’s fire lines after being assured that the factory had the means of treating its water, which it did after bringing in reverse-osmosis package plants.

Communication, with each other and returning residents, was a key part of the recovery—but, like almost anything else during this time, it wasn’t easy. “Communications were difficult if you used anything other than a portable radio or walkie-talkie,” said Olson. “It was virtually impossible to call in or out of the plant. Cellular phones weren’t much better; the circuits were usually tied up by mid-morning.”

The city issued press releases and public service announcements, informing residents about the utility’s efforts to restore fire protection by pressurizing watermains. Since this meant that homes with broken plumbing could experience additional flooding, residents were asked to see if they could safely turn off water at their meter, then tie a rag to the front door as a signal to crews who were attempting to close curb-stop valves in the most affected areas.

Lyle Stai of Willmar says during his two weeks in East Grand Forks, he operated more than 250 curb stops, either turning them off or turning them on.

Mud and debris left behind after the water receded interfered with the simplest tasks. The mud was at first slippery, impeding footing while working on a curb stop. Within days, though, the mud had turned to dust that blew into eyes and noses. But what hit Stai the hardest, at least initially, was the smell of sewage. “It smells and stinks,” he noted while in East Grand Forks. “Man, does it smell around here. You get it [the smell] on your hands, on yourself, but you get used to it.”

Despite the tough conditions, the crews kept their spirits up. “Today will be better than yesterday” was the motto—coined by Spear and Kostrzewski—that was posted on the front door of the water plant. Another message appeared after the Grand Forks Herald had a large headline stating, “We’re Coming Back.”

The East Grand Forks utility workers responded with a sign proclaiming, “We’re Still Here. We Never Left.”

The mottos helped, as did maintaining a sense of humor, according to Steve Hams of Thief River Falls. “It was a drastic situation, and we used a lot of humor to help us get through it,” he says. “We did a lot of joking around while still working hard.”

“It was amazing the help we had,” Jeff Olson said of the volunteers who came to help. “We got the best of the best, and we really appreciate what AWWA membership stands for now.”

The struggle goes on as cities continue the difficult recovery stage. For some, the worst may still not be over. But the memories of last spring’s battles between people and nature will never be forgotten by anyone involved.

All who lived through the floods of 1997 have their own enduring impressions. Lyle Stai’s everlasting memory will be the people of East Grand Forks. “They were beat up so many times by the weather, from the snow and sleet storms to the flood. Yet they were the nicest people you would ever think of working for.”

Stai added that his two weeks in East Grand Forks were “the most phenomenal thing I have done in my 26 years working for a utility. Now, looking back on it, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.”

Allen Lamm Photo
Allen Lamm

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Updated Thursday, May 22, 2014 at 06:42AM