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Bismarck Mandan Communities Pull Together to Fight Missouri River Flood

Updated on March 18, 2015
Cari Jean profile image

Cari Jean resides in North Dakota, where she works as a freelance writer and blogs at Faith's Mom's Blog.

"The message to the public is that this is someplace we've never been before." Maj. Gen. David Spryncznatyk, commander of the North Dakota National Guard

JUNE 10, 2011 - It has been a crazy three weeks here in the Bismarck-Mandan community in south central North Dakota. Because of the Missouri River flooding, things have been unstable, changing everyday with no one really knowing what the next day is going to bring. Right now the Missouri River is over flood stage with more water yet to come. It is all surreal to many living here.

On Monday, May 23rd things were relatively normal and I took my daughter to her class field trip to Dakota Zoo. Just two days later, all the animals we had just seen were being evacuated and the zoo closed indefinitely due to potential flooding.

That same week, a call for two million sandbags went out to try to save homes and the southern part of Bismarck and parts of Mandan. (Two communities that are separated by the Missouri River). Many volunteers stepped up to the plate by going to designated sandbag sites. Volunteers ranged in age from the older gentlemen who needed oxygen to help him breathe to small children who brought their little plastic shovels.

Instead of enjoying the holiday weekend (Memorial Day) on the river, many were fighting the river.

People who lived along the river were the most desperate to get their man-made levees built. Some homeowners had around 50 people helping out, some of them strangers. Many homeowners also moved their belongings out and found other places to stay, just in case. Some homeowners had to make difficult choices such as stop sandbagging at their own home in order to save someone else's who had a better chance of not flooding.

The North Dakota National Guard was put on duty. They did various jobs such as deliver sandbags, direct traffic and helped to build dikes that would protect as much of Bismarck-Mandan as possible. The next week, the call went out again for sandbags but this time it was 8 million. To help achieve this goal, the city of Fargo, which has had its share of floods along the Red River, lent us their spider machine which is able to fill over 10,000 sandbags an hour.

In the beginning stages of fighting the flood, it was hard to know how tall to build the dikes and levees because no one really knew how much water was going to be released from the Garrison Dam. When it was decided there would eventually be 150,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water released in mid-June, people needed to be ready for the Missouri River to rise to 19.5 feet - which is about 3 1/2 feet above flood level.

Currently, residents of Bismarck and Mandan are in waiting, maintaining and sustaining mode.

Aerial view of an area in south Bismarck.
Aerial view of an area in south Bismarck. | Source
Members of the ND National Guard take a break from fighting the flood to hold a Memorial Day Service in a resident's backyard.
Members of the ND National Guard take a break from fighting the flood to hold a Memorial Day Service in a resident's backyard. | Source
All this Bismarck resident can do now is wait.
All this Bismarck resident can do now is wait. | Source

What is Causing This Flood?

Many people are asking what exactly is causing this flood.

The United States Army Corp of Engineers (ACoE) says it is because of the unprecedented amount of precipitation the mountains of Montana and Eastern Montana received throughout the winter and early spring along with near-record snowfall in this area. All of these events combined have created "A Perfect Storm."

Due to all of the moisture in Montana, the Fort Peck dam had to be opened up to let water out. Too much water would create too much pressure behind the dam which would cause it to break, creating even more of a catastrophe.

Some (including the governor of South Dakota who is also fighting this battle) blame the ACoE saying they dropped the ball and that they should have known with all the precipitation received to release water from the dams much sooner. To their defense, the ACoE says they could not have predicted all of the precipation that came during the month of May.

Still others blame global warming.

Simply put though, many can play the blame game; it doesn't change the situation we face today. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of snow pack that is melting in the mountains in Montana that is heading our way. On the bright side, the river has been scouring out its bottom causing the river's predicted crest of 20.6 feet to decrease to just over 19.5 feet.

Many homes have become an island
Many homes have become an island | Source

Garrison Dam

There are 15 dams that have been built along the Missouri River. One of these dams, The Garrison Dam, is receiving a lot of attention from the Bismarck-Mandan community. Before this flood event, many did not know anything about water being released at a number of cubic feet per second. But now, those numbers are a part of people's daily lives.

The Garrison Dam is the fifth largest earthen dam in the world. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers constructed the dam from 1947-1953 under the Pick-Sloan Flood Act of 1944, along with about 50 other lakes and dams. There were six reasons given to build such dams which included:

  • hydropower
  • recreation
  • water supply
  • navigation
  • flood control
  • fish and wildlife

Since 1953, Garrison Dam's emergency spillway has never been opened until days ago on June 1, 2011. The Bismarck Tribune called it "History and Heartbreak: A Sad Day at Garrison Dam."

Dale Evenson, the dam's maintenance and operation supervisor said, "It's not a good feeling to release water into a system that's already flooding, but these are the dynamics of what we've been dealt."

Initially, the output from the dam was 15,000 cfs. It has since been increased to 100,000 cfs, 110,000 cfs, 115,000 cfs and 120,00 over a span of about five days and continues to increase. The ACoE will be releasing 150,000 cfs sometime in mid-June.

Eventually all 28 gates of Garrison Dam's emergency spillway were opened up.
Eventually all 28 gates of Garrison Dam's emergency spillway were opened up. | Source

Missouri River Facts

At 2,341 miles, the Missouri River is the longest river on the North American continent and is a tributary of the Mississippi River. Other facts about the Missouri River include:

  • The Missouri River flows through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri
  • Explorers, Lewis and Clark, traveled along the Missouri River when searching for a route to the Pacific coast
  • The Missouri River's drainage basin spans nearly 530,000 square feet
  • The Missouri River has hundreds of tributaries including the Yellowstone and the Roe River in Montana which is the world's shortest river
  • The average flow rate for the Missouri River is 86,340 cfs. The highest flow rate ever recorded was 710,000 cfs in 1993.
  • One of the Missouri River's nicknames is the Big Muddy

The Mighty Missouri River
The Mighty Missouri River | Source

‎"When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. (Isaiah 43:2a LB)

"We Gave it Our Best"

All in all, during this flood fight against the Missouri River it has been amazing to see the best in people brought out in the midst of a terrible situation.

Besides the thousands of volunteers, many businesses have also stepped up to do their part. Engineering firms have offered their services for free to evaluate residents' man-made dikes. Taxi and busing services have taken volunteers to and from designated sandbagging sites. Many have offered to feed the volunteers and members of the National Guard. A school opened up as a shelter for those who needed a place to go. Companies have offered their storage spaces to be used for free. Daycare providers have offered free daycare.

Many, many people have prayed and have thanked God for this time of preparation.

As of now, over 800 residents have evacuated from their homes. Many people are living in campers or other temporary housing and others have gone to stay with friends and family in other communities. No one knows when they will be able to return to their home.

Bismarck Mandan is in a flood fight and are in it together. Both communities know it could be a long summer and the battle may rage well into August. But when all of this is over and they are finally able to look back, no matter what the outcome, I think they will honestly be able to say, "We gave it our best."

Will this turn out to be a 100 year flood?
Will this turn out to be a 100 year flood? | Source

Fighting the Flood


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