After floods, Grand Forks eyes a new drainage study

In a scene reminiscent of the aftermath of the Flood of 1997, Gary and Maren Niemeier look over their flood-damaged belongings in their front yard and berm on Glen Circle in Grand Forks, awaiting pickup from city garbage services. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Last month, Oscar Masson woke up to knee-high water.

The French exchange student was staying in a basement bedroom at Vail Circle, a Grand Forks subdivision badly flooded during a late-September rainstorm that dumped more than 5 inches of water on the city, straining its infrastructure and flooding basements. Many residents reported water damage, some of which required thousands upon thousands of dollars of repairs.

Masson said he was awakened in the night by the sound of his closet door floating off its hinges.

“Oscar was downstairs sleeping, and he came up at 3:30 a.m. and said ‘Lonnie, Carol, I’m scared, there’s water up to my knees’,” said Lonnie Brakkel, a Central High School teacher who, along with his wife Carol, hosts Masson in their home midway between the subdivision’s cul de sacs. “That’s how we found out. Lucky he didn’t get electrocuted.”

Fifty inches of water ended up in the Brakkels’ basement the weekend of Sept. 21. They’ve since replaced their furnace, water heater, washer and dryer.


Lonnie is a 26-year resident at Vail Circle. He said water has worked its way into his basement a few times. He hasn’t been able to clean it up with a shop vac twice: after the flood of 1997 and four weeks ago.

More than a dozen of the Brakkens’ neighbors showed up to an Oct. 7 Grand Forks City Council meeting, where they detailed to city leaders the damage their homes had endured. Some suggested the city give them a property tax break; others asked about more direct financial aid via “Community Development Block Grants,” which the city used in the recovery after the ‘97 flood.

“We’ll have to see what tools we have in our toolbox,” Mayor Mike Brown said at the meeting.

For the moment, that amounts to checking on the possibility of using those block grants and a fresh look at the city’s storm infrastructure in and around that neighborhood.

In the early 2000s, Grand Forks leaders commissioned a study of the drainage systems in a 1,000-plus-acre portion of the city that encompasses Vail Circle. The study concluded that the stormwater systems in an area bordered by Columbia Road, Washington Street, DeMers Avenue and 32nd Avenue were inadequate and recommended stronger pumping stations, a bigger or additional “forcemain” underneath 11th Avenue through which water would be pumped to the English Coulee, and upgraded piping underneath 20th Street that would shift about 40% of water flow to a more southerly pumping station that also would be upgraded.

City staff members said they beefed up that southerly pumping station in 2003, and the other two in that study area in 2007.

They also replaced part of the 11th Avenue forcemain with a larger pipe that runs around the Altru hospital complex on its way to the Coulee.

But flooding has still been a persistent problem, according to some residents who spoke to the Herald last week.


That neighborhood and adjacent Glen Circle, another subdivision, often flood, but it’s generally closer to a nuisance than a catastrophe. The Brakkels park about a block away from their house whenever it rains hard, and Carol’s car was once damaged by street flooding. Other Vail Circle residents said the neighborhood’s eastern cul de sac floods regularly.

Rajeana Robertson, another longtime resident who lives near the neighborhood’s western cul de sac, said the street in front of her house often floods, too, and floodwater occasionally creeps up her yard. The September storm marked the first time water has flowed into her house, though. Robertson estimated it caused about $20,000 to $30,000 worth of damage and has presumably depreciated her home’s value.

“Everybody knows Vail Circle’s a low spot and it’s prone to flooding,” she said.

After nearly 7 feet of water flooded their basement at their home on Glen Circle, Grand Forks residents Gary and Maren Niemeier pause in their driveway as they work through the cleanup process. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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