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Brian Gehring, The Bismarck Tribune, Published August 04 2012

Reflecting on Missouri River flood a year later

BISMARCK – The Missouri River flood of 2011 will go down as historic.

It was a year ago late last month – July 25 and 26, to be precise – that flood-fighting missions in Mandan and Bismarck ceased.

The two cities were not alone in their flood fight. At the same time, residents in Ward County were also fighting for their homes, businesses and the communities as the Souris River inundated more than 4,000 homes and businesses in the Minot area. From Belcourt to Jamestown to the Red River Valley, water deluged the state in 2011.

The flood that forced the evacuation of nearly 900 homes in Burleigh and Morton counties was an event of firsts.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on June 1 opened the spillway gates on the Garrison Dam for the first time, pushing more than 150,000 cubic feet of water per second downstream. The previous record was 62,500 cfs in 1975.

State Engineer Todd Sando summed up the volume of water passing through Bismarck and Mandan this way: “We shattered the record by 13 million acre-feet (of water) that flowed past Bismarck-Mandan, 60 percent greater than that all-time flood volume.”

National Guard operations began in Bismarck on May 24, a day after they began in Minot. By the next day, 300 Guardsmen were on duty, sandbagging and building dikes.

On June 3, 1,212 Guardsmen were on duty in Bismarck and Mandan battling the flood. Between the Missouri and Souris flooding, the Guard flew 141 helicopter missions.

Bismarck Mayor John Warford said there were things the city did right in the flood response, and things that could be improved on in the event of future natural disasters.

“It was stressful,” Warford said. “Maybe the most singular focus was worrying (whether) the protective measures would hold.”

Warford commended city workers for their tireless efforts, saying, “The response to the flood was good. It was a team effort.”

Communicating the news of the day was a challenge, he said. Initially, evening news conferences were scheduled, but Warford said that left the entire day for the rumor mill to circulate, so the daily briefings were moved to mornings.

Warford said there were things the city could have done better. “The most criticism we received was for lack of access to the Southport and Fox Island areas,” he said.

Warford said with the corps and other agencies studying the effects of the flood, his immediate concern is new flooding because of ice jams caused by silt and sand deposits.

Riverwood Drive is about 5 feet higher in elevation than it was a year ago and some dikes and barriers are still in place.

Warford said short-term, the corps must manage, not monitor, the river as it freezes over this winter.

“We’re having to deal with the reality of living on the river while they’re studying it,” Warford said.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple said the response to the flooding locally was “remarkable. The people of Bismarck and Mandan put down 11 million sandbags in a couple of weeks.”

Dalrymple said perhaps the biggest positive that came out of the 2011 flood was improved communication on virtually all levels. He said that is especially true with the corps.

Dalrymple also sees a greater sense of unity among the Missouri River Basin states. He said after years of squabbling among upper and lower basin states about water use priorities, all now agree the No. 1 priority is flood control. That improved communication among the river states and the corps will be as important as ever.

Corps officials have publicly said they will be more flexible in river management and Dalrymple said that has been the case, in his opinion.

“Flexibility is key as it applies to both ends of the spectrum,” Dalrymple said.

Former Mandan Mayor Tim Helbling said issues that remain at the forefront for that community are silt deposits at the mouth of the Heart River and what happens when releases from the Garrison Dam return to normal levels.

Helbling said when the river goes back down, there will be issues with access to bays as well as potential problems with the intake structure for the city water plant.

But that’s something Helbling firmly believes can be addressed given the teamwork and effort demonstrated during last year’s flood.

“It was phenomenal,” he said, adding that there were some issues early on but once a course was set, people in Mandan set personal interests aside and did what had to be done.

“I can’t say enough about what everyone did,” Helbling said.

Former Gov. John Hoeven, now a U.S. senator, said in many ways the flood pulled the state together.

“In Minot, Bismarck, Mandan and communities from border to border in our state, last year’s flooding tested the fiber of our people and the full extent of our resources,” he said. “North Dakotans came through tremendously, and now we’re doing the hard work of getting back to normal and taking steps to make sure we are well protected against future floods.”

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