OSLO, Minn. Every year or three, when the river rises and the roads disappear, a few hundred Minnesotans become islanders.
Like in 2020, 2019 and many times before, the small northwestern Minnesota town of Oslo has been cut off from floodwaters since the last week of April. Without a ride in the National Guard Humvee, residents are not allowed to come or go. It may take several more days for the highway to open.
But Oslo’s plight is also a study in adaptation – a geographically vulnerable place that found a way to escape nature’s tantrums without engaging in an endless cycle of destruction and reconstruction. A levy system that rings in Oslo keeps water out of city streets and basements, even when the flood-prone Red River spills out miles from its banks. The trade-off is that residents can be trapped inside the city for days or even weeks.
“We are like a fish bowl,” said Mayor Erica Martens.
The river long ago lost its ability to confuse Oslo, where businesses remain open even when there are no roads. If Kosmatka’s market for groceries starts running low, vendors deliver food across the street and the National Guard helps get it to the shelves. School children who cannot reach their classes outside the city gather at the lounge of Dahlstrom Motors, a local Chevrolet dealer. Guardsmen bring mail with a letter carrier to deliver it.
“It’s probably more common than most people think,” said David Dahlstrom, who runs the dealership, where you could have bought a truck last week if you found your way to town.
balance with nature
Oslo, about 60 miles south of the Canadian border, has been flooded for as long as it has existed, as is a historic photo display at the community center. Black-and-white snapshots show four men boating on a city street and, in 1916, floodwaters reach the school house. By the 1970s, when an early flood protection system was installed, Oslo’s streets were vulnerable to flooding. And as recently as 2011, volunteers had to fill thousands of sandbags to fill gaps and shore up flood protections that eventually fell out of compliance with federal guidelines.
Residents were in no hurry to fill the sandbags on Wednesday, nor were they worried about whether the dams would clog. Instead, they were playing kickball with the National Guard and grilling burgers on Main Street. A lengthy state-funded effort to rebuild the city’s levy system, completed in 2016, has kept the city dry and calm during recent floods.
That project came at a significant cost: many houses had to be demolished to build the new levee. But the underlying ceasefire – the river may flood, and the city may remain dry – has helped Oslo survive.
“It’s that balance,” said Scott Sobich, Oslo’s lead engineer for the reconstruction of the Levi system. “We will give a little. Nature, both of us, you will give a little. And we will try to live here in harmony as much as we can. ”
High water events have become even more common in recent years due to longer periods of more intense rainfall, the consequences of climate change, and changes in river hydrology. According to data from the National Weather Service, nine of Oslo’s 10 worst recorded floods have occurred in the past 26 years, including a crest on Wednesday morning, which was the ninth-highest on record.
“They just learned to live with it,” said Pat Lynch of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which manages the grant program that Oslo and other cities have used to reduce their flood risk. When you’re literally built on a river, in a landscape that lacks relief.”
Up and down the Red River Valley, cities and towns have taken steps to limit their risks, buying flood-prone homes along the river, and investing large sums of money in flood protection systems. Those moves are part of a wider effort across the country to adapt to a more disaster-prone climate.
In Grand Forks, North Dakota, which was devastated by the Red River floods in 1997, the most at-risk neighborhoods were purchased and new flood protection installed. When the river reached appalling heights last week, life continued to move, with bridge closures ranking as the biggest impact.
working island life
Of course, for Oslo, being repeatedly cut off from the outside world indefinitely has major drawbacks. The city, which has seen its population steadily ticking down from 362 people in the 1990 census to 239 residents in 2020, cannot move beyond the limits of its levy system. The long-held dream of rebuilding highways to withstand floods has not come true. And attracting newcomers to a non-tropical island can be a tough sell.
But those who have lived in Oslo have found a way to make it work, and they say the benefits of small-town life and friendly neighbors outweigh the glaring drawbacks. Some residents with jobs in Grand Forks, the population center about 30 minutes to the south, park cars on the other side of the street and arrange rides in Humvee to get into and out of town. Others pack up and go elsewhere with friends or family until the water recedes. Still others have been known to break the law and drive a pickup truck through flood waters, which has led to some dangerous water rescues over the years.
However, often, the routine is stopped when the river goes upstream.
Jenna Machart, who is riding a bike with her children down Main Street, said she was unable to do her job at a nursing home since the roads were closed. She is also studying in a nearby college, where she had to switch to online learning.
“You know, we make the best of it,” said Machart, who ran groceries the day before highways were flooded.
In fact, once you get inside the city, you could be forgiven for forgetting that there was a flood.
On Wednesday afternoon, a Humvee plowed through the water and dodged debris on a 2-mile road that leads across the soaked state line from Interstate 29 in North Dakota and into Oslo. But when he reached the wide Main Street, the sidewalk was dry, the sun was shining and the children were playing in the park. The only clear signs of flooding were the dozen or so camouflaged guards and their vehicles.
In addition to providing emergency transport through floodwaters, members of the guard patrol the mud levees on foot to make sure they are catching up. So far, they are.
“My mom and my sister, they don’t live here, they see stuff on the news, and they say, ‘Oh my god, are you okay?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re good,'” said Krista Holter, who lives in Oslo and works at a car dealership.
Still, a lack of nervousness should not be mistaken for a lack of desire to be watered down. After more than a week of living on the island, many residents were checking the Weather Service website and anticipating when they would rejoin the Minnesota mainland.
“Everyone gets a little stir-crazy,” said Mayor Martens. “People need to get out. They have to go to work. They need to do this.”