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Arnold remembers fighting 1976 flood

Watching Minot’s flood fight from a distance in 2011 brought back memories for former city manager John Arnold, who empathized with residents when the river won.

Now living in Topeka, Kan., Arnold recently paid a visit to Minot and toured the city where he had engaged in a previous flood fight in 1976.

“It’s just devastating,” he said of the flood damage still visible. However, he was impressed with the growth and recovery occurring in Minot. Coming to Minot in 1972 from Little Rock, Ark., he was impressed then, too, at the Minot spirit.

“That attitude of can-do in Minot, N.D., was so refreshing to me. We just did a lot of things that were kind of fun,” he said.

Minot’s accomplishments during the 1970s were tempered by flood threats, though. Arnold remembers discussion about Minot’s 1969 flood during his job interview in 1972, but no one told him that the city remained at risk. In 1973 and 1974, Minot went on alert and was spared both times. In 1976, the threat increased, throwing the city’s flood preparations into high gear.

Arnold remembers construction of dikes 10 feet high with 40-foot bases throughout the town.

“We had to destroy the town in order to save it. The dikes were all over,” he said.

Leaders like Col. Max Noah and engineer Jim Ruyak of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Mayor Chester Reiten stand out in his mind even today. He recalls the emergency operations center staffed by volunteers, the three news conferences a day and the media attention from a major national network.

The city faced a difficult situation in that it needed federal approval for modifications along the Souris River, including dikes, in Oak Park.

“We didn’t have time to spend getting the Secretary of Interior up to speed,” Arnold said. Instead, the city enlisted the help of former U.S. Sen. Milton Young, R-N.D., whose interceding netted the secretary’s signature in four days.

Another of Arnold’s memories is of Reiten and Gov. Art Link inspecting the dike system. As they looked out over the river from the top of a dike, Arnold noticed water seeping out underneath the dike. Envisioning the dike washing out and taking the mayor, governor and himself with it, Arnold quickly had a crew in place to patch the levee.

The city council granted him extensive authority during the flood emergency, but he recalled stretching that authority on one occasion. When his crews ran short of clay for city diking, Arnold authorized them to use the state’s clay stockpiled for Broadway construction, informing Link later as they went into a news conference. Fortunately, during the news conference, the governor announced that he was happy to give the city permission to use the state’s clay.

What differed in 1976 from 2011 was the water never over-topped the dikes. It was a narrow victory, though. At one perilous point, Arnold ordered an evacuation of the valley at the advice of the Corps.

Leaving Minot for Fort Collins, Colo., in 1977, Arnold continued to maintain a connection to Minot, where his late wife, Kaye, had spent some of her growing-up years. He later worked as city administrator in Topeka. He now spends his retirement writing books and speaking on financial issues.