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3.7 Million Sandbags


Scores of North Dakota residents along the Red River fought to save homes, farms, and businesses during the flood of April 1979. The Army Corps of Engineers reported that these flood-fighting efforts had prevented nearly $80 million in damage, saving countless homes.

Most of the fight that year took the form of good, old-fashioned sand-bagging, since the flood was largely unexpected and took the valley by surprise. While heavy snowfall during the winter months is usually the main culprit, the 1979 flood was largely caused by heavy spring rains. Additionally, a rapid warming melted the snowpack at a rate much quicker than normal.

Usually, most of the precautionary measures, such as the building of earthen dikes using heavy equipment, would have been taken place earlier, but that year, short notice necessitated the use of ad-hoc sandbagging and back-breaking human labor. Shipments of the bags used were airlifted into the Grand Forks Air Force base by Air Force and Air National Guard planes. Clay and sand were transported into the city by enormous dump-trucks, and volunteers filled bags by night and day, building enormous dikes around the city. Spring rains continued to pour down nearly non-stop during the flood, making conditions for volunteers even worse than usual and completely saturating the water table. Grand Forks flood officials were forced to move their headquarters from the city’s police station when the basement walls of the building began to crack and leak from the rising water table.

On April 23rd, the river’s discharge at Grand Forks reached 82,000 cubic feet per second, a rate that was exceeded at the time only by the flood of 1897. All along its length, tributaries of the river established new discharge records that spring.

On this date in 1979, the Army Corps reported that an estimated 3.7 million sandbags had been used to fight the river. Ultimately, the river flooded more than 1 million acres of farmland and caused over $100 million in damage. However, without the efforts of flood volunteers that year, the cost would have been nearly twice that amount.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job


Dill, Joseph (ed.). 1988 North Dakota: 100 Years: p. 141. The Forum Publishing Company: Fargo, ND.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Monday, April 23, 1979; pp. 1-2.