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Editor's column: Experience comes in handy

October 2, 2010
By Per Peterson

Marshall and the region didn't completely dodge a bullet last week when the skies opened up across the southern third of the state, but it didn't take a direct hit, either.

Even so, things got hellish enough to evoke memories of 1993 when the Redwood River swelled to 17 feet and one-third of the city was left under water.

A?week ago, the Redwood - a tributary of the Minnesota River, which wasn't even expected to crest until today in some areas of the state - reached 16.61 feet. That tells two stories: How bad it got last week and how much worse it was in 1993 before comprehensive flood control improvements were made to an unfunded plan that never really got off the ground.

Fighting floods hasn't gotten easier throughout the years, we're just better at it now. For a city built on a marsh, that's a good thing. And while it's still uncomfortable to look for silver linings from 9/11, there's no mistaking the unforgettable attacks on our nation quickly forced each individual state to address its own security and safety issues - not just talk about them in some boardroom somewhere, but solve them. 9/11 woke us up with a slap in the face, made us think, made us act, forced us to improve when it comes to watching out for ourselves.

In Marshall, that includes dealing with natural disasters like floods.

If we can't beat Mother Nature we need to outsmart her, and past events have helped the city of Marshall in doing just that.

"I think one of the things that's different now than in '93," Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes said, "is that communities like Marshall have a well-defined disaster response plan. Public entities all across the country following 9/11 were expected to have a defined plan; one of the differences now is the procedure for response, and the role of myself as mayor, our key city staff, is well-defined. In '93, we were reacting, planning on the go. In 2010, we are following a plan.

"The silver lining, or if you want to call it a benefit of having experienced a disaster, is in emergencies we now have a plan in place," he added. "Things aren't perfect, but after every event we learn more and should use what we learn to improve the plan for the next time."

The only protection Marshall had in 1993 was a diversion channel that was constructed 30 years prior, after the disastrous 1957 flood that shut down all roads leading into Marshall.

A flood in 1969 pinpointed deficiencies in the effectiveness of the channel when it came to protecting a city that had a history of being turned into a lake. It was learned then that floodwaters that year never arrived at the diversion structure, but flowed into the community from the southwest and south into the Cottonwood watershed, Byrnes said.

There were other issues, too. After water left the banks of the Redwood, it came back into town from the downstream side, resulting in flooding from the west and northeast. Also, the natural overflow control at the watershed was never adequately addressed.

A design correction by the Corps of Engineers and authorized by Congress was essentially put on the shelf because it was not funded. Then came 1993 and a trio of rainfall events on Mother's Day, Father's Day and the Fourth of July. The city of Marshall was caught off guard. The Redwood rose to 17 feet - almost six feet higher than in '57. Water was flowing in from multiple directions, forcing the city to build emergency levees to stop it from the west and north. But by the time the levees were constructed, parts of Marshall were already inundated with flood water, as was the sanitary sewer system.

The city turned into a funnel, only there was no hole at the bottom.

It was a bathtub with no drain.

"We were scrambling in '93," Byrnes admits.

But that cloud, too, had its silver lining and taught city officials valuable lessons. More improvements have taken place since then, like the Ditch 62 storage system north of Southwest Minnesota State University, and improvements at Tiger Lake and Marshall Street near the hospital - improvements that have lessened the impact of interior storm water flooding within the community.

"In 1993, renewed interest was sparked in getting this project done once and for all to address the original design deficiencies," said Byrnes, who took office as mayor of Marshall that very year. "It was a considerable effort between the community, and state and federal government that took place before the project was ultimately funded by Congress."

Sometimes it takes two acts of Congress to make things right.



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