Part two of a four-part series.
There was time for warning.
A Mississippi River flood builds. Not in hours, but in days and weeks. The fear was that this time, though, no length of warning would be enough.
Government officials at all levels had given heed to National Weather Service river forecaster Joseph Strub’s March 19 caution that, if substantial rain fell in the Mississippi River watershed on top of the near-record snowpack on the ground, there was the potential for record-setting floods on the Mississippi and its major tributaries.
On March 25, in response to that forecast, Minnesota Gov. Karl Rolvaag directed the Minnesota Department of Civil Defense to meet with state and federal agencies to plan for a major flood within three weeks. Four days later, St. Paul officials ordered work begun to strengthen that city’s flood defenses against expected high water on the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. On March 31, in South St. Paul, the first five families were evacuated from low-lying areas ahead of the rising waters.
For the next week, as the rain fell and the waters rose, downstream towns and cities would watch — and wait.
At 9:30 a.m. the morning of April 8, Winona Mayor Rudy Ellings convened a meeting of the city council and city department heads to survey the rapidly deteriorating situation. Already more than 8,000 people had been evacuated as flood waters — already 10 feet over flood stage at Mankato — surged through the Minnesota River valley, heading east to join with the Mississippi, now threatening to flood St. Cloud and towns and cities to the east.
The forecast for Winona was sobering — 20.5 to 21 feet, dwarfing the previous crest predictions of 14.5 and then 18 feet and swamping the 1952 record-high water mark of 17.94 feet. As they met, the river gauge stood at 11 feet, destined to rise by over a foot in the next 24 hours.
The record crest was predicted to reach Winona on April 20 — a short 12 days away.
The potential disaster was hard to exaggerate.
Built on what amounts to a huge sandbar, Winona lies at the foot of the Minnesota bluffs, sandwiched between the river’s main channel and Lake Winona and Bollers Lake — a pair of oxbow lakes cut off from the river channel in prehistoric times, but still linked to the river. Even at low water, Winona barely stands higher than the waters that nearly surround it; 19th century steamboatmen scorned it as a townsite, insisting they’d passed it underwater too many spring times for it to be of use for settlement.
In fact, topographical maps, prepared to show the potential extent of flooding should its dike system fail, show Winona reduced to three narrow islands with most of the city, including the Winona State University campus, much of downtown, the city water works, wastewater treatment plant and hospital, underwater.
At the basis of the city’s flood defense — built significantly stronger and higher — would be the remnants of the dike system built to constrain the 1952 flood. The dikes were to be rebuilt with two feet added to the existing 20-foot system. The wall of earth, sandbags and polyethylene tarp was to stretch from Prairie Island to Hwy. 61 east of Mankato Avenue.
Responsibility for raising and maintaining the flood wall was delegated to four general contractors, each assigned a sector of the dike, all linked by radio and directed by city engineer James Baird. In addition to raising the dikes, four pumps — delivering 20,000 gallons every minute — would be at work 24 hours a day to keep the level of Lake Winona from rising to match the water level of the Mississippi and flooding the city from inside the dike wall.
Ellings authorized an order for 240,000 sandbags at a cost of 13½ cents each, but returnable for only 3½ cents. Taking note that more than 600,000 sandbags had already been filled and piled along the Mankato levee, Ellings dismissed the potential loss, saying that for the price, “I’d rather have 100,000 too many than 10,000 too few.”
Across the river in Wisconsin, preparations were under way as well.
On April 9, Gov. Warren Knowles declared a state of emergency in the La Crosse flood area, making the manpower and equipment of the Wisconsin National Guard available to fight the rising waters.
The La Crosse Common Council moved quickly to act on the governor’s declaration, itself declaring the city a flood emergency area, giving the city’s director of public works plenipotentiary powers to fight the flood and issuing a formal request for aid from the National Guard.
Guard units were quickly put to work bolstering the flood defenses on the low-lying North Side of the city. Working around the clock in three shifts, Guardsmen worked to extend the dike north along Monitor Street toward Copeland Avenue and higher ground. Of considerable concern and uncertainty was the situation along the La Crosse River. If the Mississippi rose high enough and fast enough, the swollen river would act as a hydraulic dam, forcing the tributary stream to pool and even reverse flow — the location and extent of such flooding was undetermined.
In preparation for the worst, ambulances were stationed on the North Side, in the event that rising water blocked streets and highways, and the city health department liberally laced the dumps on Clinton Street and Isle la Plume with poison bait. Thus there should be very little rat migration from the dumps, public health authorities assured the public.
Authorities also warned residents to keep their children away from flooded areas and away from displaced muskrats in particular. “They are dangerous and could spread rabies,” police warned. “Muskrats will also attack.”
To the north, nobody was worried about muskrats.
Floodwaters from the raging Minnesota River converged with the swollen Mississippi in St. Paul, pushing the combined river to its highest level since 1851 — fully four feet above the peak of the 1952 flood. Despite early preparations, damage was extensive, as rushing water and seepage along the left bank did severe damage to industrial properties along Shepard Road, closing down Union Depot to rail traffic and knocking out the wastewater treatment plant.
When the post office closed with floodwaters lapping at its doorstep, the rising waters accomplished what “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” could.
The Golden Garter, a nightclub on Navy Island, attempted to defy orders to close until police arrived to lock the doors. The next morning it was washed away, along with the Navy Island Bridge. On Harriet Island, the St. Paul Yacht Club was to be dynamited to prevent it from being washed away and endangering downstream bridges — but instead it caught fire and burned to the waterline, achieving the same purpose in a somewhat less spectacular manner.
Despite the destruction, river observers and engineers counted the city fortunate. The crest on the Mississippi above St. Paul followed the arrival of the highest water on the Minnesota by six days. Had they arrived together, it would have been much, much worse.
As it was, the growing crisis was enough to attract attention in Washington, D.C. At the urging of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Minnesota’s congressional delegation, President Lyndon Johnson declared 39 flooded counties a federal disaster area. On April 14, the president, accompanied by Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale, landed in St. Paul to get a personal look at the devastation along the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers.
For 10 minutes LBJ stood, topcoat buttoned to his chin and hat brim pulled low against a steady cold rain, to survey the rushing water.
“Our purpose is to see what the federal government can do to provide promptly and effectively the appropriate assistance available under the established federal program to assist the families and communities suffering from these natural disasters,” Johnson said, before boarding Air Force One to disappear into the looming clouds.
On the ground below, the flood had already evicted thousands from their homes, caused an estimated $20 million in property damage and killed 10 people.
And the high water had only reached St. Paul.
COMING TUESDAY: As floodwaters rise, a test of ingenuity and resolve.