It was a perfect storm, so to speak. A heavy autumn precipitation considered a one-in-twenty year event, a winter snowfall exceeding that of a century before which marked a severe flooding event, a very slow snow melt with few mid-to-late winter melting days – all capped off by a heavy early spring precipitation. The culmination of such conditions would produce a monumental event, the likes of which haven’t been seen in the twenty years since the fast rising waters of the “flood of 97” swept through Granite Falls. “We were well aware that there was going to be a lot of water moving once spring arrived,” said Mayor Dave Smiglewski.
“We got an early start, in January, on making preparations.” Yet, nothing could fully prepare the city of Granite Falls for the water that would come, and would come much faster than expected. “We had to scramble to keep up with water levels that went up nine feet in just three days,” said Smiglewski. As it turned out the weather was not helping matters either, “April 4 was a sunny and warm day, but by April 6, the weather had turned wintery, with blizzard conditions of fifty mile per hour winds and snow.” Smiglewski had only been mayor of Granite Falls since 1996.
Speaking of the flood that would serve as a young mayor’s first experience with near catastrophic conditions, he says that, “the flood of 1997 taught him a lot.” “Our inexperience at managing emergencies of this scale showed up at times, however, we also had plenty of other things work out quite well, thanks largely to an amazing amount of cooperation and help from our city, county, state, and federal employees, as well as many different agencies and, of course, the thousands of volunteers who helped in innumerable ways.” The extremely high water and the changing flood forecasts made it hard to know what and where would need protection. “We were new at this kind of thing and we had to make decisions on the fly, using the best info we could get our hands on at the time,” said Smiglewski.
He went on to say that the city was told to order several homes to be evacuated and that a boil order had to be placed on the city water supply, which was new ground for most of the city officials. “Issuing those orders disrupted people’s lives and was not a fun thing to do.” The River crested on April 7 and before the water would recede fifty-eight of Minnesota’s eighty-seven counties would be declared federal disaster areas - and most existing flood records within the state would be shattered. “We tried to help folks no matter if they lived in town or out in the country. There were calls coming in from both ends of town and with the river rising so fast, it was hard to keep up,” said Smiglewski.
In the end around 750,000 sand bags were used, with more filled and at the ready should they have been needed. After the initial event much of the city’s attention quickly turned towards rebuilding and getting things back to normal. “Many different people were willing to talk to the media,” which Smiglewski said helped to attract the attention of volunteers during the flood and later helped call attention to the city’s need for flood recovery and flood mitigation plans. “Those plans slowly came into being as we cleaned up the mess that was left behind,” said Smiglewski. And if sandbags serve as any measure of the future mitigation success which would follow, part of the recovery goal would include reducing the number of sandbags needed during future events.
Based on better flood forecasts and some good experience, only 600,000 sandbags were used when preparing for the 2001 flood. And, in the spring of 2010, during the seventh highest flood recorded in Granite Falls, only a few hundred sandbags were needed in some critical areas. By the time 2011 rolled around bringing with it the sixth highest recorded flood in Granite Falls, no sandbags were used. “That was a good gauge of some of the flood prevention and mitigation work that had been completed,” said Smiglewski.
However, he was quick to note, “if a flood similar to 1997 or even 2001 comes along again we will still need a lot of volunteers and will need to fill a lot of sandbags…I guess that’s part of the joy of being a river town and living along the river.” In the past fifteen years, the City has spent nearly $38 million rearranging things and moving people, homes, businesses and public facilities out of harm’s way. For those that have been here awhile, Granite Falls looks a little different than it did twenty years ago due to the acquisition, demolition or relocation of homes and businesses. Add in the construction of a flood wall, a new water treatment plant, and the rehabilitation of the city’s signature pedestrian bridge, which was mostly under water during the 1997 flood, all contribute to visible change.
Yet, perhaps nowhere in Granite Falls is change more evident than on Minnesota Avenue, where functional green space and a disc golf course have replaced the many homes that once lined the block. “This was once one of the most desirable places to live,” said Smiglewski. In the end, as a river rises it also calms - revealing bits and pieces of the stories of the past. It seems the river that so rapidly rose two decades ago – has left behind stories to tell. Perhaps no one understands this more than one whose work it is to collect and preserve the past. That’s why Yellow Medicine County Museum Director, Jennifer Disbrow, is calling for photos, artifacts and storytellers to help commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the flood of 1997. For more information about donating or loaning YMC flood artificats, please contact Disbrow at 507-430-4367.