Part three of a four-part series.
“We’ve got to work like the devil.”
During Holy Week of 1965, the power of prayer combined with dump trucks, sandbags, and the unceasing labor of thousands to save homes and communities from a flood that would have given Noah pause.
Up and down the river, communities hadn’t waited for LBJ’s lightning visit to push people and resources to the limit to fight the coming flood. Air Force One had long disappeared into the low-hanging clouds above St. Paul when U.S. Corps of Engineers technical consultant Arthur Johnson urged Winonans to make “the supreme effort” as men and machines swarmed like so many ants to raise the city’s 9-mile flood wall to withstand unprecedented water levels.
Downstream in La Crosse, National Guardsmen and local volunteers worked round the clock to protect the city’s vulnerable North Side. Already, rising waters or the threat of imminent flooding had forced about 1,400 people from their homes, and authorities cautioned that, should flood fighting efforts fail, up to 8,000 could be left homeless.
Meanwhile area tributary rivers — the Black, the Root, the Trempealeau and Kickapoo — were reaching their crests and, in some cases, beginning to fall. On the La Crosse River, the current had slowed, as the level of the rising Mississippi moved closer to equaling and surpassing that of its tributary.
In Winona, dike building had been going on in earnest since Mayor Rudy Ellings announced the city’s flood fighting plan April 8, men and machines working day and night in each of the four designated dike sectors. But each passing day brought predictions of higher and higher water levels. In response, on April 14, Ellings officially declared a state of emergency, activating Winona’s National Guard unit and pushing the city and its people to new efforts.
The task and the response were equally staggering. The plan, announced only days earlier, called for the city’s dike system to be raised two feet over the 20-foot flood wall raised against the record setting flood of 1952. On April 15, with a 21.5-foot predicted crest — 3½ feet above the previous high water level — engineers again raised the ante for dike builders, this time to 24 feet. The crest was forecast to arrive in five days.
The city swallowed hard and responded without hesitation.
That Wednesday night, more than 300 high-school students crowded the Winona Senior High auditorium to be trained for dike patrol. Over the coming days and possibly weeks, in teams of two, three or four, they were to be assigned to walk atop and at the base of the city dike to spot and report leaks and other signs of weakness.
A representative of the Corps of Engineers explained that the danger to the flood control system would first be spotted on the landward side of the dike, most likely at the base, where water had worked its way into and through the earthen structure and could be spotted leaking through the dike. Left unchecked, these leaks — boils, as they were called — would intensify as more and more water was forced through at increasing speed and volume, eroding and undermining the dike until it collapsed.
The watchers were cautioned that, unlike the little Dutch boy of legend, the immediate solution was not to try to plug the hole, but to cover it with coarse, permeable material that would slow the outflow and minimize damage.
At the top of the dike, they were told to keep a sharp eye for cracks — indications that the rushing waters had damaged the river side of the structure.
The importance of the dike patrol was underscored by the planned installation of emergency lighting over the entire length of the dike system. The mercury vapor lights were to be powered by 60,000-watt portable generators — enough power to light and power a carnival midway.
“We’ll have enough power available to furnish light to a small-size city,” civil defense communications director Roy Everett said.
But there was still much to be done before the dikes would be ready for patrol.
Already a number of high-school and college students were at work filling sandbags and assisting the four general contractors assigned to build and maintain the city’s flood defenses. As the effort escalated more than 300 dump trucks rumbled through city streets, hauling fill from several borrow pits near the city to keep nearly 30 bulldozers, backhoes, draglines, earthmovers and power shovels at work round the clock.
Across the city, businesses and industries began closing their doors to free up their employees to work on the dikes. The Minnesota State Employment Service office stayed open 24 hours a day, recruiting and assigning more than 4,300 workers — including more than 3,500 high-school and college students.
Despite the frantic activity along the river, to some the city had become oddly quiet.
Living in a major rail hub, Winona residents had long been accustomed to their days and nights being punctuated by the rumble and wail of trains rolling through and around the city. But as the river rose toward the tracks, the Burlington, the Milwaukee and the Chicago Northwestern each suspended service along the river. Air traffic in and out of the city, both private and commercial flights by North Central Airline, were suspended as flood waters began washing across the runway. And highway travel was a challenge throughout the region, with travelers and gawkers discouraged and sometimes turned away from entering flood-threatened areas.
Visiting the city on an inspection tour, Minnesota Governor Karl Rolvaag pronounced the situation “critical, but not hopeless.”
Local residents hoped he was right.
In La Crosse, Mayor Milo Knutson announced that, as a precaution, natural gas service would be cut to French Island and portions of the city’s North Side on Good Friday in advance of the anticipated river crest. He said that nearly four miles of sandbag diking was complete along Hwy. 53, but despite all efforts some streets were underwater and basements were filling near the causeway on the city’s North Side.
On Good Friday, the river stood at 19.1 feet at Winona. On the dikes, now patrolled 24 hours a day, volunteers used logger’s pikes to push floating ice away from the dikes and into the current. On the river, four Coast Guard boats were on patrol, the primary means of rescue should a dike worker lose his footing on the muddy, icy parapet and roll into the river.
As the faithful gathered Friday afternoon for Good Friday services, the crisis situation was on their minds and in their prayers.
In recognition of the extraordinary circumstances — and the fact that non-Catholic Red Cross workers might well hand out ham sandwiches to weary flood fighters — Bishop Edward Fitzgerald granted special dispensation from the traditional Good Friday fast for Catholics working on the dikes. In perhaps a lighter mood, one city pastor suggested a divinely inspired flood-fighting measure — a gopher wood boat, 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits. It was a suggestion some residents might have been forgiven for taking somewhat seriously.
On Fourth Street in Winona, despite the boat tied to their back porch, Rudy and Clara Schneider, along with their neighbors on Second, Third and Fourth streets from Wilson to John streets, were packing their belongings and abandoning their homes.
On Wednesday night, a major boil erupted at the base of the Crooked Slough dike near the foot of Olmstead Street. Dikeworkers responded by stanching the flow, then surrounding the boil with a wall of sandbags that allowed the water inside the “chimney” to rise to the level on the other side of the dike, equalizing the pressure and halting the inflow. However, the leak presented a critical weakness in the city’s defense. To minimize the hazard, a secondary dike was thrown up on Fifth Street, blocking potential channel between two areas of relatively high ground. If the Crooked Slough dike failed, the homes on the riverside of the Fifth Street dike would be sacrificed to save the rest of the city.
To the south and east, homeowners near Lake Winona from Franklin to Lake Street were urged to pack up and leave should the pumps holding the water level in Lake Winona fail and the lake waters begin rising, pushed up by the river flood.
Meanwhile upriver, flooding had all but left Wabasha isolated. High water closed the city’s interstate bridge, Hwy. 61 was closed to the north and south, and Hwy. 60 had been closed earlier in the week. A pair of Navy amphibious vehicles — ducks — were shuttling in people and needed supplies across the flood while helicopters brought blood and emergency supplies to otherwise isolated St. Elizabeth’s hospital.
And still, the river rose.
Until a dike broke.
At about 7 p.m. the river broke through the Burlington Northern railroad right-of-way near Bluff Siding, sending millions of gallons of water rushing into the marshland on the Wisconsin side of the barrier. Behind the break, the water rose as fast as a man could walk, Buffalo County Sheriff John Marsolik reported. “(It) would keep right up with you,” he said.
That initial break would be followed by several others along the Green Bay and Western right-of-way. In Winona, river watchers noted a drop in the river level as the flood flowed away from the city, providing precious respite.
On Easter Sunday, weary flood fighters received aid from an unanticipated source. Bishop Edward Fitzgerald read a telegram he had received from Pope Paul VI, extending his “sympathy and prayers for the areas that are suffering from tornadoes and floods,” sending pontifical blessings “to all in the territory affected.”
In La Crosse, authorities kept a tense watch on the river as armed National Guardsmen patrolled the dike, spurred by reports of looting of evacuated homes on French Island. On Monday morning, an 80-foot section of dike along the Black River collapsed, sending water rushing into the neighborhood near St. Andrew and Summer streets on the city’s North Side. The break put 25 homes underwater and threatened to undermine and wash away a 250,000-gallon gasoline storage tank. As a precautionary measure, the La Crosse Fire Department banned smoking west of Copeland Avenue until the tank was considered secure.
In Winona, the dikes were holding the river at bay, but a new crisis was bubbling up underground.
Easter morning water erupted from a manhole at East Fifth and Jefferson streets. The eruption was contained by building a sandbag-and-polyethylene sheeting ”chimney” around the manhole, but that outburst was followed by floodwater geysers at Broadway and Washington, Fifth and Johnson streets, and Third and Mechanic streets.
City engineer James Baird explained that the storm sewer outflows to the Mississippi and Lake Winona were becoming underground conduits for floodwaters into the city, as the hydraulic pressure exerted by the record flood levels overcame the valves and floodgates built into the system to prevent such a thing from happening.
“The system was never designed for anything like this,” Baird said. “No one in his right mind ever imagined a few years ago that we’d see a 20-foot stage, let alone a higher one.”
In a move of desperate ingenuity, flood fighters seized upon an unlikely solution. The large, rubber inflatable dunnage bags that were used by the railroad to protect breakable freight from jostling in transit by boxcar might serve as inflatable “corks” to block the city storm sewer mains. Using hardhat diving equipment borrowed from the Lock and Dam at Alma, Robert Beyers, an art glass worker and former Navy diver, squeezed through a manhole into a flooded storm sewer in an attempt to wedge a bag into the main and inflate it against the current. It held, and the risky process was repeated the next day, successfully sealing the city off from the invading Mississippi.
At 3 p.m. Monday, the river gauge touched 20.75 feet and began to, very slowly, drop. The crest moved south, reaching La Crosse two hours later where it held at 17.7 feet, 5.7 feet above flood stage, for the next 14 hours. Then the waters began, at last, to recede.
COMING WEDNESDAY: The cleanup begins, with a wary eye toward the future.