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Montevideo gaining ground in flood mitigation

The Chippewa River offers a scenic setting as it meanders along the Smith Addition and Lagoon Park in Montevideo. Its flood-swollen waters topped the banks and flooded more than 100 homes in the Smith Addition and threatened the city's water pumping station. Montevideo has since removed 130 homes in the community that were in the areas most vulnerable to flooding. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

MONTEVIDEO -- Flood waters that rose faster than anyone expected in April 1997 brought anguish and heartbreak that lasted longer than anyone could have imagined.

More than a hundred homes and dozens of businesses were flooded in Montevideo and those affected faced a long, difficult road in rebuilding their lives.

And yet, city officials called it a miracle that no one was seriously injured or killed in the flood of 1997.

Today, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is crediting the city for taking major steps that could spare this community similar disasters in the future.

Since the flood of 1997, Montevideo has worked with the state and federal governments to buy and remove 130 homes in the city's flood plain. More than 100 of the homes have been removed from the Smith Addition along the Chippewa River, where some of the worst flooding was experienced in 1997.

The city has also acquired and removed a dozen or more homes from the Gravel Road area, also hard hit in 1997.

The flood mitigation work is part of a strategy aimed at reaching a goal once stated by Mayor Jim Curtiss. He looks forward to the day when the city can consider itself safe when flood waters rise, and it can send its volunteers to help others.

Volunteers arrived by the hundreds to help Montevideo hastily erect sandbag levees to protect vulnerable infrastructure in the community during the flood of 1997. More than 70,000 sandbags were piled in a heroic, night time struggle to protect the city's water pumping station and protect the city's water supply.

Today, a new water treatment plant is located on ground well above the flood plain.

Work has been completed to better protect the city's wastewater treatment plant and system as well, according to City Manager Steve Jones. Work to protect storm water inlets and improve lift stations paid big dividends this last year, when the Minnesota River crested over flood stage at 18.29 feet.

In previous years, a crest at that level would have meant flooded basements in some areas, and would have forced the city to shut off storm and water services to many other homes.

This last year, it meant no more than keeping a watchful eye on things, and no inconvenience to homeowners.

The work is not yet completed. The city is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on an estimated $10.3 million project to upgrade the city's levee system.

Phase I of that project, at an estimated cost of $1 million, has been completed. It required raising an 800-foot section of the levee at the Canton Avenue intersection with Minnesota Highway 7 and raising the Parkway Drive Road to Lagoon Park.

This autumn or early winter, the Corps of Engineers is expected to award bids on the second phase of work, estimated at $9 million. It will increase the height of approximately 4,500 feet of the original levee built in 1969, and construct nearly 2,400 feet of new levee. The project will require raising about 4,300 feet of U.S. Highway 212 and re-aligning its intersection with Chippewa County Road 42.

The work is expected to require about 18-months time.

There remain a handful of homes in the Smith Addition area that could be vulnerable to flooding, although all of the homes in the lowest elevations have been removed. The city manager said the city does not currently have funds for flood mitigation buy outs. The city will continue to seek funding and to encourage the property owners to consider buy out offers in the future, he said.

There have not been funds available to purchase businesses in the floodplain area, but the city is continuing to explore options to protect them in the future.

Should the waters rise to the 23.9-foot level recorded in 1997, there will be no frantic scramble. The next time around, the city manager said the city will be able to concentrate its resources on assisting the small number of properties still vulnerable and avoiding the heartache and danger that marked the 1997 experience.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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