Flood turns Minn. prairie town into temporary islandby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Oslo, Minn. — With all roads leading into Oslo closed because of the flooding Red River, the small town 25 miles north of Grand Forks is an island until the water recedes.
More than a dozen National Guard soldiers are helping the isolated community of about 400 patrol the levee system. The floodwater was expected to crest Wednesday and remain high for about a week, according to the National Weather Service.
City officials say three consecutive years of major floods have not only been inconvenient, but tough on local businesses.
Even though Oslo is surrounded by floodwater, Main Street is quiet and dry, with no sandbags in sight. That's a stark contrast to 1950, when businesses and homes were underwater and residents needed motor boats to get through town.
That changed in the early 1970s, when the Army Corps of Engineers built a permanent levee around most of town. The levee has never failed, so people don't worry much about their property getting flooded.
What hasn't changed is the isolation. When floodwaters spill across the surrounding farmland, the roads are covered, too.
Lots of residents get out of town just before the roads close, said Karen Cote, Oslo's city clerk and treasurer. Those who stay could be stuck here for several weeks.
"We have an airboat that brings supplies in and out. If we have emergencies, the boat is there to get people out," Cote said. "Everyone just stocks up and they know that it comes to that. So the people who want to leave town to make sure they get to their jobs, they move out."
The isolation is hard on local businesses. When the roads close, Oslo becomes almost a ghost town, said Rod Dalstrom, who co-owns a family car dealership that's been in downtown Oslo since 1905.
That's because most people work outside of town and have to stay elsewhere when the roads close.
"The restaurant feels it, the grocery store feels it, the gas station feels it," Dahlstrom said. "We feel it. I mean, everybody does. It's just a really, really bad inconvenience for us."
Dahlstrom, who lives in Grand Forks, will work via computer until the water recedes. He hopes to someday see a permanent fix.
"We've asked for years to have somebody do something about the roads coming into town to build them up a little bit — and that doesn't seem to be happening," he said. "The state of Minnesota seems to like to spend a lot of money every year fixing the road out here in order to just have it ready for the next flood."
Finding a solution to flooded roads is a long-term goal for Oslo Mayor Scott Kosmatka, who recently watched water rushing toward Highway 1, Oslo's only south entrance.
Kosmatka wants lawmakers to revisit a state law from the 1980s that prevents them from raising the road. Elevating a roadway in this part of the state can send water in unintended directions, including across state lines into North Dakota.
Improving road access into Oslo during a flood might save the state money in the long run, the mayor said.
"Highway 1 gets tore up every year," he said. "It's silly to be spending that much money year after year after year."
City officials may not have a solution to their flooded roads, but they are getting money to improve their flood protection. Right now, the Army Corps of Engineers has to come in each year and build a 2,000-foot temporary levee close to the river to close a gap.
Oslo will use $6.5 million in state funds to make that permanent.
The bad news is that the town will have to buy out some properties. Ultimately, that could mean the loss of some of Oslo's population.
"There's 20 properties with 16 of those being homes. That's 10 percent," Kosmatka said. "We hate to lose anybody, but it's just necessary for the betterment of the city."
The buyouts in Oslo will begin this fall. The city hopes to convince some of those families to move their homes to other locations in town. Construction on the final link of permanent levee starts next spring.
- All Things Considered, 04/13/2011, 4:49 p.m.