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Red River Valley governments still tallying costs of widespread flooding

The fast pace of this spring’s flooding was an added challenge for local leaders organizing flood responses.

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Volunteers lay sandbags around the Crookston Library along the Red Lake River near downtown Sunday, April 24, 2022.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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CROOKSTON, Minn. — The costs of spring flooding that tested city and county disaster responses across the region are still mostly unknown, and while spring flooding is a regular occurrence along the Red River Valley and its tributaries, the fast pace of this spring’s flooding was an added challenge for local leaders organizing flood responses.

In Crookston, Minnesota, which experienced major flooding of the Red Lake River this spring, flooding usually occurs when snow and ice melts. This year, ice had melted without significant flooding, and Corky Reynolds, interim city administrator, said city leaders thought they were in the clear. Then came heavy rainfall on April 22 and 23.

“The water had no place to go, so it came rapidly, it came in large amounts and that was atypical,” he said. “We had to react quickly to larger amounts of water than we typically experienced, and our time for addressing the issue and preparing were cut significantly.”

In Crookston, the emergency operations center organized the flood response in the city, and leaders in command centers for each of the city’s six wards helped identify where resources were needed.

Reynolds said the key to the flood response in Crookston was “organized chaos.”

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“I make an analogy to an anthill — it looks like ants are scurrying all over but they always seem to end up in the right place with the right things,” he said. “That’s how we were able to operate effectively, because we have a plan in place that can organize the chaos.”

The flooding of the Red Lake River in Crookston on Sunday, April 24, was cause for a peacetime emergency declaration by Gov. Tim Walz, allowing the Minnesota National Guard to help with flood fighting efforts. An emergency declaration for Polk County was signed earlier that day, and on Monday, April 25, the Guard assisted in Fisher, Minnesota, downstream from Crookston on the Red Lake River.

Joan Lee, Polk County Commission chair, said the response to flooding in Polk County was a team effort. Jody Beauchane, Polk County emergency management director, facilitated most of the rapid flood response in the county as water levels rose, like sending Polk County trucks to haul 30,000 sandbags to Crookston. Polk County dispatchers took reports from community members about flooding on roads and the sheriff’s department and highway department worked to close roads when needed. Molly Paulsrud, a county social services supervisor, organized the Red Cross emergency shelter at the Crookston Sports Center.

“It’s a lot of people and departments working together, for sure,” said Lee.

Pembina County in North Dakota experienced widespread overland and river flooding in early May. In Drayton, along the Red River, clay dikes were built to protect the town as the crest moved north. In Cavalier and Pembina, volunteers helped fill and place sandbags to fight off rising rivers. In Neche, North Dakota, the Pembina River surrounded the town, closing the border crossing to Canada. The Pembina County Water Resource District also oversees the Bourbanis Dam in neighboring Cavalier County, which was at risk of breaking due to erosion on May 3.

Many cities in Pembina County flood regularly, said Samantha Diemert, Pembina County emergency manager, meaning community leaders know how to respond.

“They have the community support in their little community to fight the floodwaters and they know all of their protocols on how they’re going to run their flood,” said Diemert.

She said the county provided Neche with sand this year, while Pembina sourced sand from a company in Minnesota.

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“A lot of our stuff this year was sandbagging and manpower behind that, which was supported by communities. Anything we can’t handle locally we request it through the state.”

Local governments are still calculating what flood response and cleanup will cost. In Polk County, preliminary cost estimates are around $5 million, said Lee. Still unknown are costs for mechanical repairs on pump stations that were running constantly for days and costs for damage to township roads.

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With the potential for more heavy rain Friday night, the mayor said emergency personnel were in the process of recommending others in the city to consider leaving their at-risk homes. The sheriff’s office also advised those who’ve left their homes to avoid returning to them until it is safe to do so, and the public was also asked to stay away from the Randall area so emergency personnel could do their jobs effectively.

Reynolds said the cost of flooding in Crookston alone is “significant,” but could not yet provide an exact number.

“We had significant expenditures in obtaining clay and hiring contractors to use the clay as diking material,” said Reynolds. “And we certainly had some overtime costs for employees of the city who were involved in our flood fight. I can’t tell you the amount, but they were wonderful — they answered that call.”

Diemert said most of the costs in Pembina County will come from road repair and debris removal.

Spokespeople for both the Minnesota and North Dakota Departments of Transportation say the departments continue to survey the damage to state roadways.

David Finley, spokesperson for NDDOT, said the department believes there is enough damage to state roadways in North Dakota to qualify for the Federal Highway Administration Emergency Relief Program, which would help cover repair costs with federal money.

“That takes $700,000 to be eligible, so we need that much damage on the roadways, and we believe we have that,” he said.

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Federal funding to repair damaged roads in North Dakota could also come from FEMA. On April 25, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum declared a statewide emergency for flooding and widespread infrastructure damage from the storm of April 22-24. That emergency declaration allows him to request a presidential disaster declaration, which would activate FEMA funding to assist cities, counties and the state with recovery costs.

In Minnesota, cities and counties across the state impacted by spring storms and flooding are also anticipating FEMA funding. On Thursday, May 19, Sen. Amy Klobuchar met with leaders from affected areas across Minnesota, including Lee, to discuss local impacts of storms and possibilities for disaster relief funding.

Klobuchar said 49 counties in the state are being assessed to receive FEMA assistance for public infrastructure repair, and for counties that don’t meet the threshold for damage, state funding is available.

“If FEMA funds don’t kick in, then the state funds do, because we have, I don’t want to call it a 'rainy day fund,’” said Klobuchar. “Bad joke, but we do have money set aside for the counties that don’t make the FEMA numbers.”

Klobuchar also said she is working with North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven to urge the USDA to provide flexibility on final planting dates under crop insurance in areas affected by flooding this spring, as storms and flooding have done damage to fields and farm equipment, delaying planting for many farmers in the region .

Related Topics: FLOODING
Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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