The snow is as high as an elephant’s eye …
Lyrics like that are probably why Rogers and Hammerstein set their hit musical in Oklahoma instead of North Dakota (although “where the wind comes sweeping down the plains” would certainly still fit). As winter grinds on to the end of February young men’s fancy may turn to romance but older and wiser people’s attention turns to flood preparation.
My newspaper career has been defined by chasing down one flood story after another. I started off in Devils Lake about 15 years ago when the lake was just about half its current size and everybody was sure it couldn’t get any bigger. Back then we were told that eventually the larger surface area would mean more evaporation, which would balance the increased runoff. The Lakers up there are still waiting for that balance to happen. National Weather Service predictions indicate the lake will set a new record again this year.
The Lake Region really started flooding about 1993. My hometown of Edmore was hit hard that year. The mayor was asked by a television news reporter when the water was going to go down. He replied, “How should I know. We’ve never flooded before.”
Nobody seemed to have much experience with flooding in those days. Just about everyone planned their life and livelihood around not enough water, not too much. Farmers planned their rotations to take advantage of every drop of rain. Cities built reservoirs and pipelines to insure sufficient water for homes and industry. A lot of people honestly believed there was no such thing as “too much water” in North Dakota.
Oh sure, we suffered from occasional floods. But those were like lightning strikes, rare and unpredictable. Drought was the constant enemy that kept us all looking over our shoulders. I had a young farmer tell me, “I spent my whole life learning how to farm in droughts. I don’t know how to farm in a flood.”
Something shifted in the mid-90s. Devils Lake saw it first. While I was with the paper we started putting out annual flood editions. People got to know Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel on a first name basis.
The best known event in the early part of this wet cycle was, of course, the 1997 Grand Forks flood. There is nothing like coming close to losing a whole city that gets the nation’s attention. Soon after that I moved on to the Minot Daily News.
Flood stories continued to follow me around. I covered events both large and small. I remember kneeling in a Red Cross shelter in Belcourt so I could be at eye level with an elder to talk about the home she had lived in for nearly 80 years and now was gone.
Think Beulah’s potholes are bad? A flood in Upham left a gap a yard wide and 5 feet stretching across the whole of the town’s main street. I saw 6-foot culverts laying in the middle of fields at least a quarter mile from any road.
Even when I moved to Dickinson in 2000, there was some flooding on the Heart and Cannonball Rivers. I was starting to think I should hire myself out as a rainmaker.
In the decade that followed, floods and North Dakota seem to have been inseparable. It seems like it has crossed the line from common to the ridiculous. Something like 47 of North Dakota’s 53 counties had an official disaster declaration in 2009. This year’s snow accumulations have flood forecasters nervous from Bismarck to Minot to the Red River Valley to Beulah.
Flooding has become the new normal. In Devils Lake, which is now in the 17th year of its flood, most plans now start with “Depending on what the lake does …” Grand Forks is now shielded behind permanent flood protection and Fargo is considering how to do the same. Just like we came to cope with droughts that defined the North Dakota experience in the 20th century, it seems the state and its people will need to learn and adapt to high water in the 21st century.
There have been a number of meetings in the past week to prepare Beulah and its residents for what will likely be another spring of high water. There will be many more in the weeks ahead. A lot of information will be coming out on how to keep lives and property safe. I suggest that people heed that advice and watch out for themselves and their neighbors. Last year Beulah was caught flat-footed by the rising waters of the Knife River. It seems we are getting a rerun this year. Let’s give the story a better ending.
Far Afield – It beginning to feel like a rerun
The snow is as high as an elephant’s eye …