April 11, 1997
JIM LEHRER: Now the flood update. The Great Plains states of Minnesota, North, and South Dakota continue to experience the bite of a record-breaking winter. Our report from the towns along the Red and Minnesota Rivers is by Fred De Sam Lazaro of KTCA-St. Paul-Minneapolis.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Northern Great Plains area is known for extremes of climate, but in 125 years of recorded history never has it reached so many of those extremes so quickly.
GOV. ARNE CARLSON, Minnesota: I donít think anybody could have anticipated the snow, blizzard, freezing conditions, a melt, and a flood all occurring at the same time. I think itís fair to say that Minnesota during the past several days has had three seasons all wrapped up in a matter of days.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: State emergency officials had anticipated flooding. They set up this hotline to help motorists, farmers, and homeowners across the region. David Lundberg of the Minnesota Public Safety Department says last winter was a particularly wet one.
DAVID LUNDBERG, Minnesota State Emergency Management: This is right at the Continental Divide, so this is right where the water begins to flow North out into Canada and South down the Minnesota River into the Mississippi River. And so thereís a great confluence of moisture, water, out here. This is where the heaviest snow pack was this winter.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Unseasonably warm weather began melting that snow in late March and early April. Then last weekend came the rapid change of weather. Rain, snow, and winds up to 60 miles an hour added to the complication and misery of volunteers who worked around the clock to fortify homes and main streets up and down the river. They were able to hold the Red River at bay in places like Fargo and Moorhead. But just 50 miles to the South most of the 4,000 residents of Breckenridge, Minnesota, were forced to flee after water burst through a levee. Shelters like this one operated by the Red Cross have served as a home for hundreds, including Joel and Maxine Harms.
JOEL HARMS: We have water in the basement; we probably will have a couple of feet when we left, and then the Minnesota National Guard came and got us. We called them. They said that the sanitation is actually blowing down, and we could kind of smell that coming up in that, but it was cold, wet, and it was starting--the water was starting to freeze in that, and then the streets and that. It was getting pretty rough and that. Weíre kind of glad that they came and got us as quick as they did.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Not long after the Harms fled Breckenridge the floods and everything else, including the high water mark, became locked in a deep freeze. Temperatures dipped into the single digits. They havenít risen above freezing all week. Despite the unyielding layer of ice, hardy residents tried to begin the task of restoring normalcy in Breckenridge. Dennis Larson, whose mobile home escaped without damage, tried to clear a road for his neighbors, most of whom had yet to return.
DENNIS LARSON: As you can see here we have a lot of ice laying around, and thatís fine. My initial concern is to get the streets opened up so people can, if they want to get to their houses and survey any kind of damage they might have, they can do that.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: By yesterday trucks that did not get clamped by ice were filled with ice, helping businesses on Main Street deal with their clean-up. Volunteers helped rip out soggy carpeting from insurance agent Mike Belsethís office. Belseth tried to restore his computer and phone lines, preparing for the inevitable onslaught of calls.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Flood insurance was a big issue a month ago, so do you know how it worked out? I mean, are people partially covered?
MIKE BELSETH, Insurance Agent: We had a large number of flood policies sold out of my office, yes, so--
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In time?
MIKE BELSETH: In time, yes. People took heed with the warnings as a general rule, so theyíre, theyíre most--most of the ones that wanted it and most of the ones that needed it, I think, will be in, hopefully, pretty good shape.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Region-wide no one is certain how many people heeded the urging of state officials a few weeks ago to purchase flood insurance. Time is a key factor, plus policies only provide coverage if they have been in force at least 30 days. Further downstream in New Ulm, Minnesota, about 150 miles South of Breckenridge, the Minnesota River crested yesterday about eight feet above flood stage but about a foot shy of dikes built by residents like John Fritsche.
JOHN FRITSCHE: As of Monday morning, 10 oíclock Monday morning, there was not a sandbag in the area.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Fritsche assembled an army of volunteers to save the family farmhouse now occupied by his mother. By Thursday he declared victory. But Fritsche, who decided to risk going without flood insurance, paid dearly.
JOHN FRITSCHE: I may have anywhere from seven to ten thousand dollars tied up in here. I donít know. We havenít had time to sit down and do any figuring what is this costing. Right now weíre trying to save what we can in the city and everything down here, and keep everything going.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It will be some time before Fritsche and everyone else along the regionís rivers can stop worrying. In New Ulm, just doors down from the Fritsche farm, is the home of Robert and Ruth Zangel, who also worked frantically to fortify their home. But at 2 AM on Wednesday they discovered the river had won, inundating their home of 28 years and a couple of acres of what used to be choice riverside land.
RUTH ZANGEL: Itís so terrible, 28 years of just looking at it, and thereís nothing there that you can do anymore.
ROBERT ZANGEL: Totally worthless.
RUTH ZANGEL: Yeah.
ROBERT ZANGEL: Well, we had a dike, just like everybody else did, like you had here. We would have been all right too, but it broke at 3 oíclock in the morning, and there was nobody there at that time to help.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Do you have coverage for any of this damage?
ROBERT ZANGEL: No.
RUTH ZANGEL: No.
ROBERT ZANGEL: No.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: State officials say they havenít begun to tally losses to homeowners and businesses. Nor is there any estimate of the impact on spring planting, though itís expected to far exceed the levels of 1993, when floods caused an estimated $1/2 billion in losses. For now, during a generally wet, very unpredictable month, the priority remains safety.
DAVID LUNDBERG: We will be working on the emergency phases probably for the next two to four weeks. Weíll be working on the recovery phase probably for the next two to four months.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Back in Breckenridge the mood for residents like Dennis Larson ranges from listlessness to despair.
DENNIS LARSON: Itís kind of stressful because you donít know what to do next. Theyíre talking another crest coming through on the weekend, and all we can do is kind of wait and see. And thatís kind of hard to do, sit around and do nothing really.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Forecasters say the river could crest Saturday. They donít expect temperatures to climb above freezing here before Monday. Up to 8,000 residents in the area remain displaced from their home.