- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2016

MINOT, N.D. (AP) - The most devastating flood ever to hit Minot occurred in 2011. River levels never before experienced in the Souris River Valley damaged thousands of homes, striking a severe blow that pushed countless residents into temporary living quarters or forced them to leave the area entirely.

For some, recovery continues to this day, the Minot Daily News (https://bit.ly/1TvH5f8 ) reported. For many others, recovery has not been possible, due either to the extent of damage or the strain on finances. The hopes and dreams of many were washed away.

What follows is a look back at a critical time when the flood was developing and what can be interpreted as a failure on several fronts to fully cope with an obvious and impending problem.

By May 2, 2011, there were numerous indications that Minot and the Souris River Valley were on track to experience historic flooding. Rafferty Reservoir near Estevan, Saskatchewan, was eight feet higher than its previous record high level and a mere two feet from overflowing. The capacity of Rafferty is approximately five times that of Lake Darling, the last reservoir on the Souris before it flows into Minot. Local flooding was being reported in Estevan.

Boundary Reservoir, an impoundment that is smaller than Rafferty but connected to Rafferty by a diversion channel, was within 2 1/2 inches of spilling. Boundary is fed by Long Creek, a tributary of the Souris that was experiencing record flows.

On May 2, 2011, the Souris was flowing at 4,570 cubic feet per second at the Boy Scout Bridge west of Minot. Lake Darling was releasing 3,800 cfs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would be reducing Lake Darling output to 3,000 cfs despite the knowledge of vast amounts of water upstream.

Two days later, Saskatchewan releases from Rafferty and Alameda reservoirs were increased to 3,530 cfs, easily pushing the Sherwood river gauge over the previously announced goal of 3,200 cfs.

“We expected that news. It was just of a matter of when,” said Alan Reynolds, Ward County’s emergency manager.

By May 5, it was clear there was a historic amount of water reaching the Souris. All goals regarding the spring melt had been met or exceeded and were expected to go much higher. Lake Darling releases remained at 3,800 cfs, not the 3,000 cfs announced by the Corps.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns in regard to the amount of water that may come down from Canada,” warned Tony Merriman, National Weather Service, Bismarck.

On May 10, the Minot Daily News visited Rafferty Reservoir to assess the situation. At the time, releases from Saskatchewan dams were nearly 5,000 cfs. Rafferty and Boundary were declared “pass through” facilities and the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority issued a flood advisory for the Souris Basin. Flows of 7,000-10,000 cfs were being predicted at the Sherwood reporting point on the Souris. Weather forecasts called for rain. Lake Darling releases were cut to 3,500 cfs.

Unable to keep pace with inflows, the Saskatchewan dams increased their releases to 8,472 cfs, much more than Minot or Lake Darling could hope to handle.

“I’ve lived here forever and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Clint Dougherty, Estevan, told the Minot Daily News.

The same day, the National Weather Service warned all Souris River locations to prepare for one of the lengthiest water events in history. A new NWS flood outlook substantially increased crest levels all along the Souris. Lake Darling releases were upped to 4,000 cfs with an announced plan for 5,000 cfs in the coming days.

The flow at the Boy Scout Bridge hit 5,940 cfs and flood stage was reached at Minot’s Broadway Bridge. It was just the beginning with much more water to follow, yet little was being done to increase protection in Minot or by city and county officials to warn citizens of the possibility of record flooding.

On May 12, the Saskatchewan dams were forced to increase releases to 9,390 cfs. They were simply unable to keep up with record inflows. The Souris was ripping along at 6,610 cfs at Broadway Bridge, a higher flow than what much of the diking in the city was believed able to contain.

“Rafferty is full. Boundary is full. Long Creek is running high and Alameda will be full. Lake Darling is expected to fill. When you add them all up it’s pretty ugly,” said Allen Schlag, NWS hydrologist.

“There’s no stopping the water,” added Reynolds. “There’s just no way around it.”

In the face of such warnings and record releases upstream, the Corps of Engineers cut Lake Darling releases by 300 cfs from 4,000 to 3,700. The following day Lake Darling releases were increased to 4,400 cfs. The next day Saskatchewan releases totaled 7,413 cfs.

By the 14th of May, the Sherwood flow had jumped to 8,500 cfs and was expected to reach 9,500. Flooding was under way at Mouse River Park above Lake Darling. Two days later Lake Darling outflow was increased to 4,600 cfs. The following day Lake Darling’s gates were opened to 4,800 cfs, the most in history. It was a record that would soon fall, and in a very big way as the Souris drainage continued its rampage.

On May 19, Lake Darling was releasing 5,000 cfs and the measured height of the Souris at Baker Bridge climbed over 16 feet, the second highest ever recorded for that location. The NWS warned of a possible 1-2 inch rain over the Souris and Des Lacs River drainages. The Minot Daily News, attempting to glean information from public officials, was evicted from an Emergency Operations meeting at the First District Health Unit.

The following day, the city held its first press conference, supposedly to inform the public with details of the situation. While some information was shared, city and county leaders announced their opposition to increased releases from Lake Darling. It was a somewhat confusing and mixed message from City Hall.

The city began erecting Hesco barriers along Fourth Avenue NW in preparation for “7,000” cfs despite the fact Lake Darling was rapidly approaching overflow and that upstream flows were already projected to top 9,000 cfs.

“The situation remains very precarious,” warned Roland Hamborg, Corps of Engineers. “Lake Darling will fill in a few days. The reservoirs on the Souris are full, or nearly full. It’s a dilemma trying to manage this.”

In the face of that assessment the Corps responded with an announcement from its St. Paul office saying they would be decreasing the outflow from Lake Darling. The decrease was a delaying action that saw Lake Darling rise to an unprecedented level.

Many basements in Minot were taking on water by May 21, mostly due to saturated ground. The Broadway Bridge gauge reached 1,552 feet, three feet over flood stage. The water was rising with much more on the way, far more than enough to make the previously infamous 1969 flood look like a puddle. Serious, dangerous flooding, was inevitable.

Two days later, water began to enter low areas of the city. The NWS issued a new flood outlook for the Souris. Understandably, it called for additional rises. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Mayor Curt Zimbelman and Burlington Mayor Jerome Gruenberg took to the air for a helicopter view of the valley.

Upon landing Zimbelman remarked, “We’ve got problems.”

Gruenberg added, “People have just given up. They are tired of the fight.”

The next day, with a monstrous flood on the doorstep of the city, Minot City Council held a special meeting to secure the services of the Corps of Engineers. Lake Darling was at 1,600.14 feet, less than two feet from overflow. Upstream reservoirs were full, the Souris and Des Lacs Rivers were running at record levels with no relief in sight.

On May 25, dike improvements in the city of Minot got under way in earnest with the goal of providing protection against a flood of 9,000 cfs. Lake Darling releases were upped to 5,500 cfs in an effort to stay inches ahead of inflow. The following day, as dike construction continued at many points in the city, Minot’s citizens were told there was no immediate need to evacuate their homes. That promise would prove to be short lived.

By May 27, Lake Darling had inched up to 1,600.86 feet, dangerously close to spill level, despite releasing 5,800 cfs. Releases from the Saskatchewan dams were increased again. While Minot was preparing for 9,000 cfs there was already much more water in the system.

“It’s an extraordinary event that is getting beyond the flood the dams were designed for,” stated Roland Hamborg, Corps of Engineers.

The last day of May saw Lake Darling reach 1,601.26 feet, about six inches from topping the control gates. Col. Michael Price, Corps of Engineers, stated the inevitable, “There will be flooding in the city of Minot.”

Suddenly there was a furious pace to build dikes to protect what the city called “important infrastructure.” The Saskatchewan Watershed Authority essentially threw in the towel, saying, “Reservoirs have no capacity to store further inflows.”

And further inflow was coming. Lots of it. Just as predicted by those closely monitoring the situation. The following day Minot leaders ordered mandatory evacuations for 10,000 residents, telling them to “Get out of harm’s way as fast as possible.” It was a stunning reversal from the few previous messages from City Hall to the public.

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