Bismarck couple remember 1997 Grand Forks flood

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — When water from the mile-distant Missouri River began creeping into their south Bismarck backyard last week, Maren and Mike Daley had a sobering reference point: the 1997 Red River flood.

They were forced from their Grand Forks condo then, and operations at Maren's employer — the former First National Bank of Grand Forks, now Alerus Financial — were severely disrupted by the downtown fire that accompanied the flood.

They left Grand Forks in 2001 for Bismarck, where Maren today is executive director of Job Service North Dakota and Mike is an attorney and deputy director of the state Securities Department.

"The Grand Forks flood was top of my mind when we looked at houses out here," Maren Daley said Tuesday. "I looked at houses closer to the river because it was so beautiful there, but we thought we would be safe here," with the Riverwood Golf Course between them and the Missouri.

"I said I would not live in a high-risk flood area again," she said. "You do it once and you don't want to do it again."

But they watched as the river rose, fed by heavy regional rains and higher-than-average snowmelt in Montana and Wyoming that swelled contributory streams, and half of their 1.5-acre backyard has gone under water.

"Our sump pump started running Friday, the first time in 10 years," Maren Daley said.

They heard the pump working, and they listened as the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would have to release ever-increasing flows of water from Missouri River dams.

With help from coworkers, friends and family members, some of whom raced out from the Grand Forks area and Fargo, the couple spent the Memorial Day weekend hauling furniture from the basement and first floor, and they built their own sandbag dike.

All the while, they couldn't avoid memories of 1997.

"When a Blackhawk helicopter flew over, that sound brought it back," Maren Daley said. "You remember that sound. It put a pit in my stomach to hear it again."

In 1997, the Daleys lived in a second-floor condo just off Belmont Road and the Lincoln Park Golf Course.

"All our neighbors on the lower level lost everything," Maren Daley said, "and the building got taken out (years later) for the dike."

They evacuated for six weeks to a relative's house in Johnstown, where Maren used the family phone to help with the recovery of her bank. "Rebuilding the bank and taking care of our customers was the first priority," she said.

By June, they were able to return to their condo.

"It was really kind of creepy because the lower level was gutted," she said. "Our unit, you could walk in and it was sort of OK. We cleaned and cleaned."

They bought another house in Grand Forks around Christmas. It had sustained damage in 1997, but the basement had been gutted and cleaned. They lived there until the move to Bismarck and the red brick house on Bonn Boulevard in 2001.

"It's a wonderful neighborhood, and it kind of reminds me of Grand Forks," Maren Daly said. "There are lots of big trees, and we see deer and wild turkeys out back — though fewer now, as they seem to be looking for higher ground."

They had one flood scare before this year, when ice jams on the Missouri in 2009 threatened serious flooding in Bismarck until the jams were dynamited.

They bought flood insurance after that.

The Daley home has natural protection to a Missouri River flood height of 19 feet. Officials were predicting the river will go to 20.6 feet, and dikes under construction are supposed to protect the area to a foot above that, Maren Daley said.

"But there's a lot of uncertainties because of the releases from Garrison Dam and the rains in Montana," she said, and the possibility of floodwaters skirting the primary dike and coming to them from the south. Water levels and pressure against dikes is expected to remain high well into the summer.

Over the weekend, the Daleys emptied their basement and put most of their first-floor furniture on a trailer, and they arranged for 3,000 sandbags to be delivered and stacked.

If the river gets to the house, they plan to stay as long as they can, until power is lost and roads are cut, to monitor pumps.

"When you're looking at your own stuff, it's hard sometimes to make decisions, so it was good to have family and friends here," Maren Daley said. "We got into action mode, doing what was needed."

Local engineers have volunteered to visit neighborhoods to make sure private dikes are built properly, Daley said, and she cites more lessons from Grand Forks in 1997: The dike should be as wide on the bottom as it is tall, "and when you have a sandbag line of women, don't fill the bags too full."

As she surveyed the watery backyard, she could smell 1997.

"I said it still smells better than after a flood," she said. "It was after the flood in Grand Forks, the cleanup time — that smell really left bad memories."

She gives state officials and the National Guard high marks for their response to the crisis so far, though she wishes the Corps of Engineers would offer a range of flooding probability, as the National Weather Service has done since the 1997 Red River flood.

"In Grand Forks, they said the river would crest at 49 feet, and then it went to 54 feet and the city went under," she said. "After 1997, the weather service went to ranges. I knew what that meant. I understood it.

"Here, I'd like to know a range, too. They can't guarantee a level. I know that. But I want to know the range of what they expect to be coming. How high could it go if they have higher than expected rainfall and inflows?"

With regard to the city of Bismarck's response, "it's been a learning experience," she said, but she is thrilled by the support from friends and neighbors, just as she was in Grand Forks 14 years ago.

"It's tough, but we're holding up well," she said. "I'm not optimistic that we won't have significant property damage, but with help you do what needs to be done. You work very, very hard, and this is where the best in people comes out."