Few of us remember the Red River basin flood of 1950.
Even fewer were prepared for the flood when it hit. The dry 1930s and modest flooding of the 1940s had lulled basin communities into complacency.
Then, a winter of heavy snow followed by heavy spring rains resulted in flooding all along the main stem Red River, with discharges at Pembina exceeding the 1897 flood. Six people died in the flood, and the economic price tag was estimated at $600 million to $1 billion.
Hardest hit was Winnipeg, where multiple dikes failed, resulting in the evacuation of 100,000 people from the city on May 5.
Although additional basin flooding followed in 1951 and 1952, the weather turned mostly dry for the rest of the 1950s. With the exception of Winnipeg, which began work on permanent flood protection for the city, basin communities for the most part did little to prepare for the next big flood.
So, despite the fact that most parts of the main stem experienced damaging flooding in 1950 (and/or 1951 and 1952), the memory of the early 1950s floods appears to have quickly faded in the dry years that followed. Communities for the most part did not step up to add permanent flood protection.
As a result, when large spring floods hit again in the 1960s and ’70s, most communities had only makeshift responses. And, when the 1997 flood blew many earlier peaks out of the water, communities found themselves fighting for their lives with minimal permanent protection in place.
Some, like Grand Forks/East Grand Forks, lost the battle.
The 15 wet years that followed the trauma of 1997 have seen work in many communities to put permanent flood protection measures into place. However, many of these efforts fall short of levels of protection recommended in the Red River Basin Commission’s 2011 Long-Term Flood Solutions study.
The study shows that, of 42 main stem and tributary cities, only two, Halstad, Minn. and Oslo, Minn., meet recommended levels of 200-year protection. Only two of the five larger population centres, Winnipeg and West Fargo, N.D., meet recommended levels of 500-year protection.
Half of the 42 communities still have less than 100-year protection or no permanent protection. Of those communities with less than 100-year protection, one, Fargo-Moorhead, is a major metropolitan area, whose potential for flood damage is enormous (estimates show a $9 billion to $10 billion loss to the cities in the event of a 500-year flood event).
One lesson of 1950 is that a dry year like the present is not the time to forget. Rather, it is a time to plan for and put into place permanent flood protection for the basin’s vital communities. Is your community ready for the next big flood?