After the flood: 1965 helped cities better prepare

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Following the 1965 flood, one measure that was taken to protect the communities from flood waters was the building of dikes, like this one in Marquette. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Fifty years ago Friday, the Mississippi River crested at 25.38 feet in McGregor, surpassing the previous record of 21 feet on June 20, 1880. Over several weeks, the flooding, brought on by an accumulation of large snowfall amounts farther north and heavy spring rains, wrought havoc on Marquette and McGregor. Residents were forced from their homes, businesses battled water, sources of clean drinking water and power were threatened and roads in and to the communities were shut down, only traversable by boat or Army duck.

The high water was nothing new to Bob Myers, whose family owned Boatels in McGregor.

“We were used to it because we got high water every year,” said Myers, who was 22 in 1965, “but nobody else had really prepared for it.”

“No one had prepared for that amount of water,” agreed Marquette resident Mary Jo Pirc, who returned home from college that spring to help her father fight the flood. During the event, they were forced from their home, which was located downtown. “For 1965, they kept revising [the crest] every day. It kept getting higher and higher. Nobody had flood insurance at that time.”

“The river came up, but never like that,” added McGregor resident Dan Bickel, who was 16 that spring and helped sandbag and maintain the dike built to protect the city’s light plant. “Where we lived, we learned we were vulnerable. We didn’t have much flood protection.”

1965 changed that.

In the years following the historic flood, dikes were constructed in both communities, helping to keep the water closer to its banks.

“The federal government came in and built the dikes,” Pirc said. “They still have control of them and inspect them.”

Over the years, McGregor has worked to raise its dike and keep it clean, said Bickel.

“It’s as good as it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s protected the town ever since.”

Myers said the dike has made a huge difference in the community.

“Water’s never come up Main Street like that again,” he said, referencing the water’s reach to the Alexander Hotel in 1965.

Since then, he added, the road has also been raised.

“You learn as you go through floods,” Bickel said. “I learned how to fill sandbags; there is an art.

“We’ve gotten much better prepared with the dikes, pumps and sandbags. Normal water we can withstand, but 22.5 feet gets hard to manage.”

Flood stage at McGregor is 16 feet. Since 1965, the river hasn’t let up, cresting over 20 feet several times, including 21.38 feet in April 1997, 21.58 feet in April 1969, 21.98 feet in June 1993 and 23.75 feet in April 2001. Yet, over 50 years of flooding, 1965 is still the record.

“People said, ‘Boy, we couldn’t go through that every year,’” Pirc noted. “Every time a flood is mentioned, the old timers said they hoped it wouldn’t be like 1965.”

“Everyone’s hoping we never have one worse,” added Bickel.

However, he fears another major flood is inevitable, explaining that, as a kid, he used to dive off a houseboat in Horseshoe Lake into the Mississippi. Then, the water was seven feet deep, he said. Today, it’s just three, having been filled in with silt.

“The river doesn’t have the capacity,” he said. “We’ll see it again someday.”

For more information about the 1965 flood, including photos and personal stories from those who lived through it, please see the commemorative booklet included with the paper.

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