Breckenridge recoups some of what it lost
By Gerry Gilmour
The Forum of Fargo, N.D.
BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. -- Stan Thurlow had no idea what he was getting into.
When the planner-for-hire signed on with this city in August 1996, he figured he'd be spending about a day a week here working on economic development programs.
Come spring of 1997 he was swamped, literally and figuratively.
"I had no idea I would end up doing this," he said.
"This" is flood recovery.
"This" is where the Otter Tail and Bois de Sioux rivers merge to form the Red River. And "this" is where the great Red River flood of 1997 began.
Breckenridge residents were fighting a losing battle April 5, 1997, as the Otter Tail came from the east and Red and the Bois de Sioux from the west and south.
Cold rain hampered efforts to protect their homes and businesses.
"Fargo-Moorhead had a fight on two sides of one river," Thurlow said. "Here, they were fighting multiple sides. We had the east side of the Bois de Sioux, the north and south sides of the Otter Tail and the east side of the Red. We were fighting on four fronts."
The first flood was followed by the ice age, as temperatures dipped to freeze the waters in place. A week later, just days after the waters had warmed and receded, the city flooded again, this time by waters that flowed overland from the south.
The city recorded a record flood stage of 19.2 feet, not once but twice that year.
"We had a lot of water on the north side," Thurlow said. "Never in the history of Breckenridge had we had water on the north side of town."
Five years later, Thurlow's just beginning to close out the last of many government contracts the city has used to rebuild after the twin floods that devastated the city in April 1997.
All told, the city administered $23 million in grants and programs for home and business buyouts, demolition, new housing, permanent dikes, flood walls and pumping stations. The city set up 14 pumping stations, at a cost of $250,000 each, that can pump water out of the city's interior.
"Once the town is protected, we have to be able to drain the city from the inside out," Thurlow said.
There's more work ahead. This year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin acquiring land and digging an $8 million, 3.5-mile diversion channel that will carry water around the city on its eastern flank in the event of another major flood.
Also on the way is a levy system to protect the city's north side.
That sense of protection has enabled the city to retain most of its population. Thurlow estimates the city lost 10 percent of its population immediately after the flood.
Breckenridge had a 1990 census population of 3,708. Its 2000 count was 3,550.
The city of Breckenridge bought out 131 homes and two businesses. Five homes developed mold problems so severe that children had to be hospitalized for respiratory illness. Those homes, too, were bought out and destroyed.
Incentive programs brought a lot of the people back.
"If people were bought out, we had a lot to offer them," Thurlow said. "I think people in general came out good. They took on debt, yes, but they ended up with more equity, too."
Since the flood, 108 new homes and two six-plexes were built, essentially replacing the housing stock lost in the flood. Two new subdivisions were developed.
Mayor Cliff Barth, who was a city council member in 1997, said he can't believe how far the city has come.
"As far as housing and recovery, we've come 100 percent," Barth said. "It's just great. It's hard to believe that this year, we're not seeing any water. This spring, we are fortunate."