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Saturday, October 1, 2022

Life in a Minnesota ‘Fishbowl’: Water Everywhere, Except Inside Town

Every year or three, as the river rises and the roads disappear, a few of hundred Minnesotans are forced to live on an island for a period of time.

Since early last week, the little hamlet of Oslo in northern Minnesota has been blocked off by floods, just as it has been in 2020, 2019, and many other years before. Residents are not permitted to arrive or depart unless they are transported in a National Guard Humvee. This means that it might take many more days for the roadways to re-open

The river has long since lost its ability to frighten Oslo, where companies continue to operate even when the roads are closed. When Kosmatka’s Market begins to run short on supplies, traders transport food to the roadblock, where the Guard assists in getting it to the market’s shelf. Local Chevrolet dealer Dahlstrom Motors hosts a gathering of schoolchildren who are unable to make it to their out-of-town schools due to inclement weather. Upon entering the building, guardsmen carry in the mail, which is then delivered by a letter carrier.

On Wednesday, residents were not in a hurry to fill sandbags, nor were they concerned about whether the levees would hold up in the coming storm. As a substitute, they were out on Main Street playing kickball with the National Guard and cooking burgers. The completion of a protracted state-funded project to restore the city’s levee system in 2016, which kept the town dry and peaceful throughout previous floods, has kept the town safe.

Several residences had to be demolished in order to construct the new levees, which added to the overall cost of the project. However, the underlying ceasefire — according to which the river may flood while the town can remain dry — has allowed Oslo to thrive.

Flooding has been increasingly frequent in recent years, owing to prolonged periods of more heavy precipitation, which is a result of climate change, as well as changes in the river’s hydrology, which are all contributing factors. Oslo’s 10 worst recorded floods have occurred in the previous 26 years, according to National Weather Service statistics, with the most recent peak occurring on Wednesday morning, when the river reached its ninth-highest recorded level.

Cities and towns all along the Red River Valley have taken efforts in the previous generation to mitigate their risks, including the purchase of flood-prone properties along the riverbanks and the investment of large amounts of money in flood protection infrastructure. Those actions are part of a bigger national effort to prepare for a more disaster-prone environment, which is underway throughout the country.

Residents of Grand Forks, North Dakota, who were affected by Red River floods in 1997, were able to purchase homes in the most at-risk areas, and additional flood safeguards were put in place. When the river swelled to terrifying proportions this week, life went on as usual, with bridge closures being the most significant consequence.

Of course, for Oslo, being shut off from the rest of the world on a regular basis for an endless period of time has significant consequences. The town, which has seen its population slowly decline from 362 individuals in the 1990 census to 239 inhabitants in 2020, would be unable to expand beyond the limits of its levee system because of the flooding. Long-held hopes for the reconstruction of roadways to make them more flood-resistant have not materialised. Additionally, recruiting new individuals to a place that is not very tropical might be difficult.

Those who have chosen to remain in Oslo have found a way to make it work, and they believe the advantages of small-town life and good neighbours outweigh the negative aspects of living in the rain. Some locals who have employment in Grand Forks, a population centre roughly 30 minutes to the south, park their vehicles on the other side of the roadblock and arrange rides in a Humvee to travel in and out of town on a regular basis. Others pack up their belongings and relocate with friends or family until the floodwaters recede. Others have been known to defy the law and drive a pickup truck through floods, which has resulted in some deadly rescues in the previous several years.

At about 2:00 pm on Wednesday afternoon on the two-mile stretch of road heading from Interstate 29 in North Dakota over the flooded state boundary and into Oslo, an Army Humvee raced through water and skirted debris. As the train approached the wide-set Main Street, however, the pavement was dry, the sun was beaming, and children were playing in a playground across the street. All that could be seen were a dozen or so camouflaged guardsmen and their trucks, which were the only visible indicators of the flood.

In addition to providing emergency transportation across the floods, the Guard men monitor the earthen levees on foot to ensure that they are in good condition and are not being undermined. So far, they have been successful.

Although there is no need to be alarmed, there should be no doubt that there is no desire for the water to recede. The National Weather Service website was often visited by island dwellers, who were making educated assumptions about when they might be able to return to the Minnesota mainland after more than a week of island life.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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