WABASHA -- The Mississippi River flood of 1965 is the one all others are measured against, it's still a strong memory for those who were there and now, it's the subject of retrospectives by the National Weather Service and Minnesota Historical Society.
This spring, unusually heavy snow in the river's watershed that includes about half of Minnesota led the service to predict that if conditions were right, the flood could equal or exceed 1965. Now, it's toned down the warnings because of a slow melt but the river itself could still rise again in a few weeks, officials warn.
It that second rise that caused the problems in late April 1965, the flood wiped out cabins or trailers on Central Point in Lake City, turned Wabasha into an island and hit Winona with heavy damage despite thousands of volunteers who filled and placed sandbags.
This year, some homes on Central Point are still in danger of being flooded, although some were raised up or the whole area was raised. Wabasha is preparing to keep at least one road open, if possible, with sandbags and dikes. Winona should be safe because its dike was handle a flood several feet higher than 1965.
Jeff Boyne of the service in La Crosse, Wis., began collecting stories and photos of the flood of 1965 more than a year ago both for historical remembrance and to help predict what will happen in the future.
"At the time, the crests of that April exceeded previous records by several feet at many river gauge sites. To this day, those record crests still out distance the second highest crest by a foot or more at many of those same sites. This flood caused $225 million in damage to public and private properties, with $173 million of that occurring along the main stem of the Mississippi River. Emergency actions and evacuations, based on National Weather Service forecasts, prevented approximately $300 million in additional damage."
The winter was unusually cold and melting was slow. In late winter, early spring, extremely heavy snowfalls hit the river's watershed and then came a rapid melt and rain. The three main rivers feeding the river in this region— the Minnesota, Upper Mississippi and St. Croix — all peaked within a few hours of each other.
Accounts of the flood from his work detail the number of flooded homes and other devastation the flood caused. Former Post-Bulletin photographer Charlie Hale shot hundreds of rolls of film, many from an airplane, while reporter Gordy Yeager wrote stories. Hale said late winter was benign but then
"By early April, however, Yeager and myself realized 'beyond a shadow of a doubt we were going to have something big.' By the end of the month, hundreds of homes and cabins along the river had been flooded, some were slashed to kindling by wind-whipped ice floes, and farmers had to use boats to feed their chickens."
The Minnesota Historical Society includes his memories as well as many others from Boyne's work in a traveling exhibit of the flood of 1965. For some of those who remember the flood, it is more than a distant memory, it's one that remains with them.
As of Sunday, the Mississippi River was at least at flood stage or causing minor flooding in this region and will continue to rise slowly throughout this week.
The good news is that the crest won't be anywhere near a record, and the river could begin to slowly drop in a week or two.
But when it does, the region won't be safe. Heavy rains combined with a rapid melt up north could send a second crest that could be higher and cause more problems.