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

OSLO, Minn. — Every year or three, when the river rises and the roads vanish, a couple of hundred Minnesotans become island dwellers.

Just as in 2020, 2019 and so many times before, the small northwestern Minnesota town of Oslo has been cut off by floodwaters since early last week. Without a ride in a National Guard Humvee, residents are not allowed to come or go. It could be several more days before the highways reopen.

But Oslo’s predicament is also a study in adaptation — a geographically vulnerable place that found a way to survive nature’s tantrums without engaging in an endless cycle of destruction and rebuilding. A levee system that rings Oslo keeps water off city streets and out of basements, even when the flood-prone Red River splays out miles beyond its banks. The trade-off is that residents can be stranded inside the town for days or weeks.

“We’re like a fishbowl,” Mayor Erika Martens said.

The river long ago lost its capacity to faze Oslo, where businesses stay open even when the roads do not. If Kosmatka’s Market starts to run low on groceries, vendors deliver food to the roadblock and the Guard helps get it to the shelves. Schoolchildren who are unable to reach their out-of-town classrooms gather in the lounge of Dahlstrom Motors, the local Chevrolet dealer. Guardsmen bring in the mail, along with a letter carrier to deliver it.

“It’s probably more normal than most people would think,” said David Dahlstrom, who runs the dealership, where you could still buy a truck this week if you found a way to get to town.

Oslo, roughly 60 miles south of the Canadian border, has been flooding for about as long as it has existed, as a historical photo display at the community center attests. Black-and-white snapshots show four people boating down a city street and, in 1916, floodwaters reaching the schoolhouse. Until the 1970s, when an early flood protection system was installed, the streets of Oslo were vulnerable to flooding. And as recently as 2011, volunteers had to fill thousands of sandbags to fill gaps and shore up those flood protections, which eventually fell out of compliance with federal guidelines.

Residents were not rushing to fill sandbags on Wednesday, nor were they worrying about whether the levees would hold. 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 levee system, completed in 2016, has kept the town dry and calm during recent floods.

That project came at a significant cost: Several homes had to be torn down to build the new levees. But the underlying truce — the river can flood, and the town can stay dry — has helped Oslo survive.

“It’s that balance,” said Scott Sobiech, the lead engineer on the rebuilding of Oslo’s levee system. “We’ll give a little. Nature, we both, you’ll give a little. And we’ll try to live in harmony here as best we can.”

High-water events have become even more common in recent years because of longer periods of more intense precipitation, a consequence of climate change, and because of shifts in the river’s hydrology. Nine of Oslo’s 10 worst recorded floods have come in the last 26 years, according to National Weather Service data, including a crest on Wednesday morning that was the ninth-highest on record.

“They’ve just learned to live with it,” said Pat Lynch of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who manages the grant program that Oslo and other cities have used to reduce their flood risks. “Your options are few when you’re literally built on a river, in a landscape that is so lacking relief.”

Up and down the Red River Valley, cities and towns have taken steps over the last generation to limit their risks, buying out flood-prone homes near the riverbanks and investing huge sums of money in flood protection systems. Those steps are part of a broader effort across the country to adapt to a more disaster-prone climate.

In Grand Forks, N.D., which was devastated by Red River flooding in 1997, the most at-risk neighborhoods were bought out and new flood protections were installed. When the river rose to fearsome heights this week, life continued apace, with bridge closures ranking as the biggest impact.

Of course, for Oslo, being repeatedly cut off from the outside world for an indefinite span of time has major drawbacks. The town, which has seen its population tick steadily downward from 362 people in the 1990 census to 239 residents in 2020, cannot grow beyond the bounds of its levee system. Longstanding dreams of having the highways rebuilt to withstand floods have not come to pass. And attracting new people to a very untropical island can be a hard sell.

But those who have stayed in Oslo have found a way to make it work, and they say the benefits of small-town life and friendly neighbors outweigh the soggy drawbacks. Some residents with jobs in Grand Forks, a population center about 30 minutes to the south, park cars on the other side of the roadblock and arrange rides in a Humvee to get in and out of town. Others pack up and move in with friends or family elsewhere until the waters drop. Still others have been known to break the law and drive a pickup truck through the floodwaters, which in past years has led to some dangerous water rescues.

Often, though, routines are placed on hold when the river goes up.

Jenna Machart, who was riding a bike with her children down Main Street, said she had not been able to make it to her job at a nursing home since the roads closed. She is also studying at a nearby college, where she had to switch to online learning from attending classes in person.

“You know, we make the best of it,” said Ms. Machart, who made a grocery run the day before the highways flooded over.

Indeed, once you get inside the town, you can be forgiven for forgetting there is a flood at all.

On Wednesday afternoon, a Humvee plowed through water and dodged debris on the two miles of road leading from Interstate 29 in North Dakota across the soaked state line and into Oslo. But when it reached the wide-set Main Street, the pavement was dry, the sun was shining and children were playing in the park. The only obvious signs of the flood were the dozen or so camo-clad guardsmen and their vehicles.

In addition to providing emergency transportation through the floodwaters, the Guard members patrol the earthen levees on foot to make sure they are holding. So far, they are.

“My mom and my sister, they don’t live here, they see the stuff on the news, and they’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, are you OK?’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re good,’” said Krista Holter, who lives in Oslo and works at the car dealership.

Still, a lack of panic should not be mistaken for a lack of desire for the water to recede. After more than a week of island living, many residents were checking the National Weather Service website and venturing guesses about when they would rejoin the Minnesota mainland.

“Everybody gets a little stir-crazy,” said Ms. Martens, the mayor. “People need to get out. They need to go to work. They need to do these things.”

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