First in a four-part series.
Rudy’s fishing boat was tied up at the back door.
Just in case.
Barely three blocks away the water was rising, already challenging the levee that had failed 13 springs before. So before Rudy and Clara climbed into bed, they tied their boat at the back door.
Just to be sure.
For most people and communities up and down the Mississippi River, the record-setting flood of 1952 had barely begun to fade in memory. That spring, a 17.94-foot crest weakened and topped hastily constructed dikes, sending the Mississippi River pouring into basements and living rooms in low-lying areas of Winona, including the Schneiders’ home on West Fourth Street.
Now, as March turned to April, forecasters were talking about a flood beyond any in living memory, and people looked warily at the rising river with thoughts of higher ground.
The floodwaters of April 1965 began falling on rain-sodden cornfields as farmers struggled with a muddy harvest the previous fall. During September, significantly above-average autumn rainfall fell throughout the Mississippi River watershed, soaking the soil throughout the region. The National Weather Service recorded measurable precipitation 16 of September’s 30 days, with the Mason City, Iowa, reporting station measuring nearly 5 inches more rain than normal for the month.
The saturated soil held its moisture through October and into November, when a sharp and persistent drop in temperatures drove the frost into the wet earth deep and hard.
The winter continued cold and snowy, save for a brief, sudden February warm-up that generated rain showers across the region, adding moisture to the winter snowpack well ahead of the spring thaw.
March brought alternating bouts of heavy snow and sudden thaws, filling the tributary streams and rivers of southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin, while winter snows lay thick and wet, piled in the northern forests and drifted deep on the central Minnesota plain.
March 17-18, a blizzard roared across eastern South Dakota, across Minnesota and into Wisconsin, dumping up to another 18 inches of snow onto the existing snowpack and leaving nearly 4 feet of snow piled in the fields and ditches, snow that would eventually find its way into the Minnesota River and other Mississippi tributaries. In St. Cloud, 51 inches of snow fell in March, so much that the National Guard was called out to clear streets and extricate traffic.
And that snow did not go away.
The March that came in like a lion hung on like a polar bear. In Minnesota, it proved to be the second-coldest March on record, with an average temperature of 14.8 degrees. It was Wisconsin’s fifth-coldest ever.
From the offices of the National Weather Service, forecasters viewed the deep heavy snow and deeply frozen ground with growing trepidation. On March 19, Joseph H. Strub, NWS river specialist, predicted that based on then-current conditions, the river would crest at 14.5 feet at Winona — a foot and a half above flood stage — a situation that would be no cause for alarm.
But Strub attached a caveat. If another inch of rain should fall as the flood crest developed, river levels to rival 1952 could be anticipated.
On March 29, a blizzard dumped 10 inches of new snow on the region.
The next day, the front page of the Winona Daily News warned, “Deep snow could trigger worst flooding in years.”
Then the rains came
Between April 1 and April 15, between 2.5 and 3.5 inches of rain fell across the region, melting the snowpack and running off the frozen ground into rapidly swelling creeks, streams and tributary rivers.
And the Mississippi began to rise.
On April 3, in what might later be viewed as an omen, a delegation of federal and state civil defense officials canceled a flight to the area to evaluate flood preparedness — citing rain and potential bad weather.
Two days later the Corps of Engineers began raising the roller gates on the lock and dam system to allow the river to flow uncontrolled, in anticipation of high water. The next day, April 6, brought news of additional heavy rain across the region, including 1.13 inches at St. Cloud and a forecast crest to equal the record set in 1952. In the Minnesota River valley, heavy rains led forecasters to predict the Minnesota would crest at 25 feet at Mankato, 6 feet over flood stage and only a foot below the top of that city’s 26-foot flood dike.
As the waters rose and the forecast became even more grim, high school and college students got to work raising dikes in towns all along the Mississippi.
“This is what we were afraid of,” Strub said.
In Hastings, 36 blocks went underwater when the Vermillion River, normally a pleasant creek, burst its banks and rendered 300 people homeless.
And more rain was in the forecast.
On April 7, the first families were evacuated ahead of the rising waters in La Crosse.
Shortly before 6 p.m. that day, the floodgates were opened on Lock and Dam No. 7 to prevent an ice jam, but it caused the river downstream to rise rapidly, putting about 100 families living on Pettibone and Green islands at risk. Army reservists under the direction of the Red Cross assisted in the evacuation.
In Mankato, 500 people were evacuated by National Guard troops and preparations were made to shelter up to 1,200 families after an ice dam let loose on the Blue Earth River, dumping a rush of water into the swollen Minnesota and threatening to wash over Mankato and St. Peter.
A day later, with the Minnesota River at 28.75 feet and rising, nearly 8,000 people were homeless in the Mankato area. But the dikes, built in desperation to 29 feet, still held.
A new threat
And on the Mississippi, a frightening complication loomed.
On April 9, Lake Pepin was frozen shore to shore, covered in hard, blue ice, 3 feet thick and riding on a river that was rising an inch and a half every hour. In Wabasha, residents looked north at the 3-mile-wide expanse and worried that the ice, borne by wind and current, might let loose of the shoreline and move south in a piece.
They had reason to worry. Rising water had flooded Central Point, north of Lake City, drowning up to 50 summer homes that were sheared from their foundations and reduced to kindling when an east wind drove Lake Pepin ice across the flooded landscape.
“We can fight high water, but there’s no defense against a moving ice field,” Wabasha game warden Willis Kruger said.
The mayor of the threatened city put it more succinctly.
“If Lake Pepin ice comes in a sheet with the floods, there’ll be no more Wabasha,” Mayor Ray Young said.
In an effort to avert impending disaster, the tow Ann King churned upriver, acting as a makeshift icebreaker, battering the solid mass, while from the shore, a large railroad crane reached out from the Milwaukee Road tracks to hammer the ice with a wrecking ball.
The morning of April 15, the worst fears seemed to be realized. A strong wind picked up out of the northwest, driving a quarter-mile-long ice floe toward Wabasha — and smashed into a flooded woodland, diverting it from the city.
But as the ice floated past, the river continued to rise.
The danger was far from over.
COMING MONDAY: The preparation ... and the waiting, begins.