The flood of 1965: an oral history

2005-04-19T00:00:00Z The flood of 1965: an oral historyChris Hubbuch / Winona Daily News Winona Daily News
April 19, 2005 12:00 am  • 

On March 19, 1965, Joseph Strub, a meteorologist with the National Weather Bureau in St. Paul, predicted that the Mississippi would crest at 14.5 feet in Winona - about a foot and a half over flood stage.

But a March 29 blizzard dumped another 10 inches of snow on the watershed, and early April rains swelled the tributaries. On April 6, 12 blocks of Hastings were flooded. Mankato was hit two days later.

Winona city officials met that morning and came up with a plan to throw up an 18-foot temporary dike around the city's vulnerable east side and ordered high-volume pumps to handle overloads at the sewage treatment plant. The same day, the weather bureau revised its flood predictions: Now the river was expected to crest at nearly 21 feet - nine feet over flood stage, and nearly three feet higher than the "hundred year" flood of 1952.

That night Mayor Rudy Ellings called a meeting of contractors and challenged them to erect a dike. They marked out four sectors - from lock and dam 5A on Prairie Island to Mankato Avenue. Within 24 hours, construction had begun.

As many as 5,000 people worked to build, and later monitor, the temporary dikes. They filled 1.3 million sand bags and worked round the clock for 10 days, using almost 300 trucks, 25 to 30 bulldozers, eight earth movers, 10 drag lines and a dozen backhoes.

The dikes worked, and when the river eventually crested on Monday, April 19, at 20.75 feet, Winona remained, for the most part, dry. Following are the recollections of some of those who worked to protect the city.

Pros, volunteers worked together

Gerry Modjeski was a 24-year-old foreman for his father's company, Winona Plumbing Co. now Winona Mechanical, one of the primary contractors who built the dikes.

"We got a report from the people who managed the river flows that the crest was going to be substantially above our flood stage. All the contractors met at Winona Heating, and we laid out a plan and decided what dikes had to be fortified, what dikes had to be built new and began to construct all these areas with heavy equipment. We had every piece of heavy equipment available in Winona and Rochester.

"My dad and James O'Laughlin set up an office out on Prairie Island to direct operations out there. Immediately we started excavating out in those areas on the back side of the dikes, taking material and building the dikes with a lot of granular material - sand and gravel which was not real good material to hold a dike.

"But then we opened up a pit across the river, over by Spur, up on the left. That was a bunch of clay and rock. Something that would hold. We took a lot of material out of a pit over by Homer.

"Twenty-four hours a day we worked. They kept raising the crest estimate, so everybody was getting pretty concerned.

"It was a cooperative effort. They were really working hard, and they were working together. Neighbors, people who were in competition, they were working right together.

Former Navy diver put his life on the line

When flood waters continued to bubble up through the storm sewers, city officials came up with an ingenious plan to use inflatable rubber bags to plug the system. Ray Beyers, a 34-year-old glazier at Reinert Art Glass who had been a Navy diver in the 1950s, answered the call for someone to go down and deploy the stoppers.

"The city was being flooded through the (storm sewer) system. That's why we put the dunnage bags in there.

"The bags were originally built for the railroad. If you had a third of a car that you ordered stuff in, they'd put like cattle fence, and then in between the cattle fence they'd put these bags and fill them full of air, so if it moved a little bit, you'd have a buffer. That's what they really were built for.

"This fellow was in Akron. They called and said what can we do? We've got all this water backing up in the sewers. He says, 'Well I've got these dunnage bags.'

"All the diving gear came from the 5A dam up the river. They sent a fellow along who knew how to run all that equipment - the air compressor and whatever - and he did as much work as I did.

"It was a deep-sea diver rig. That was the only thing that the government would let them use on the dam. They had them suits there because one of the lockmasters was a diver, but he was busy up at the dam. He couldn't come here, but he said, 'I'll loan you the fellow, and I'll loan you the equipment.'

"It was like closing your eyes and trying to find a pair of shoes in the closet.

"There's rungs in there for sewer workers to climb down. I just walked right down like going down a ladder. But it was a little awkward to get all that stuff on. The shoes weigh around 40 pounds, then you have a belt - that weighs 80 or 90 pounds. The last thing you want is to have too much air in there and you float to the top. That's why the lead shoes.

"You crawl along like a crab n one foot and then one arm, then the other foot and the other arm and you don't know what you're going to walk into. It was only about five or six feet across. There's two or three or four openings. They knew which one was pointing toward the river and we just had to go and make sure the thing was clean, so there was no obstructions in there.

"We took a garden rake and cut it off, then they bent it so it would fit in a big pipe. I put the rake in there and made sure it was clean. Then I took the bag and put it down in there and then we filled it up with air and that sealed it off. It was like filling up a car tire.

"Over about six blocks, as soon as you put that in there, they said that the water quit rising."

Turning 40 on the dikes

Jim O'Laughlin, a 39-year-old plumbing contractor, celebrated his 40th birthday working on the dikes.

"Mark Modjeski and I had the dike going out from Madison Silos to lock and dam 5A. The Corps of Engineers took care of their (dike), and we had to take (ours) up to it. And then the goddamn stinkers took 50 or 100 guys, and they took them from our end of it. I can't remember what the city was paying, and the Corps turned around and paid them double what the city was going to be paying them.

"God, we lived out there. I know that Mark and I never went to bed for three or four days. We'd sleep in a chair a little while, but that was it. Working night and day.

"People brought stuff there to eat. The Salvation Army come with trailers full of sandwiches. God, those guys ate like hogs, but they worked like horses.

"We built this thing on the road. Right on the blacktop. It was the dumbest thing in the world to build it there, but it was only supposed to be a couple feet high. We didn't know if it was going to stay there or not.

"Water was starting to come through (under the dike). A guy by the name of Olson had a bulldozer and he plugged it up. He was pushing I don't know how many yards (of dirt) and he pushed it up in there pretty good. They pushed sand right up on the bulldozer and everything. Right on top of it, all over it.

"They buried the dang thing. But they stopped the leak. By God, they saved Winona."

'Water in one window and out the other'

Leo and Joann Lemieux bought their first home on Prairie Island in 1964 after Leo got out of the Navy. After the flood, they moved to a farm in Wisconsin, but they returned in 2000 to Prairie Island to be near the river. Leo died March 3, 2005, at age 66.

"We were on the right (river) side of Prairie Island Road.

"Our house had water going in one window and out the other. But we came back and cleaned it up.

"I had things up high, like the refrigerator I put on top of the kitchen table. I had to buy a new washing machine when we came back. The stove, we had to get a different one. We had to get a new furnace.

"We figured some log must have come down the river and hit the house and some of my things that I had on top of the freezer and stuff that wouldn't have gotten wet fell in.

"I had to move up to the farm with four little kids - the baby was only 3 months old and then 1, 2, 4 years old. I moved in with my parents at Galesville. Leo moved me and the kids up to my folks and then he came back here and worked. His mother and father lived on Main Street - he stayed there.

"He was saying that the Salvation Army was bringing them hot food, and then the state came along or whatever and said they couldn't do that anymore. They had to give them cold sandwiches. So that was terrible, because then they didn't have any hot food, and it was freezing the whole time.

"He lived on the river before we were married - with his friends, with the boat, he camped out on islands all the time. He just loved it. He wanted us to put his ashes in the river."

Winona Red Cross played a key role

Twenty-two-year-old Carol Moline (now Slattery) was one of the 300 Red Cross volunteers who helped prepare and serve an estimated 14,000 sandwiches and 200 gallons of coffee each day to the dike workers.

"I was a Red Cross volunteer for the Bloodmobile. And then when we had the flood we had to feed all those workers out on the dikes that were working so hard. A lot of them were out on Prairie Island.

"So we made up sandwiches and made cookies to keep them going. They were going twenty-four/seven.

"They did have hot soup earlier in the week. I don't know the reason why that didn't work out. I just know that the switch was made, and I thought that the sandwiches were a lot more practical.

"We worked a lot of extra hours. They would take us whenever they could get us. I had a small child at home. My son was 1, and his grandmother gladly took care of him so I could volunteer. Everybody needed to make a contribution.

"My husband - now my ex-husband - was working out on the dike. Where we lived out in Goodview, we could see the floodwaters coming up. Not in our back yard, but every day they became more prominent. We could actually see the river coming up. That was some flood.

"I just remember how the whole community joined together. And how people volunteered, whether it was resources or time."

Reporting on the river

Gary Evans, 24, was the sports editor at the Winona Daily News.

"The flood began just as winter sports ended and spring sports never quite began that year. All of the newsroom employees were marshaled into the flood coverage. Everyone of us was assigned a dike to cover. My dike ran from the Winona Knitting Mills property down around the corner. I walked that every day. The city editor then seemed to have a particular interest in how many yards of polyurethane were being used to cover the dike. We used to joke about that.

"On the Saturday before Easter, I was working in the newsroom. About two o'clock, I went out to check my dike and there's nobody there. It's the loneliest place in the world, so I started working my way west. As I got to the downtown, there was nobody around, as I got to the west side of the city there were dikes along Fifth Street and there were dikes on Second and Third streets - there were no people.

"So I kept moving west until I got well out beyond the airport. I was driving out Old Goodview Road and all of a sudden I saw a grader out there - that road was gravel at the time. A friend of mine was operating the grader - his name was Charlie Frank and I remember saying, 'Charlie, is there anything going on on the Prairie Island dike?'

"He said, 'Yeah, come on up here and I'll take you out and show you.'

"He drove me out so I could look down the Prairie Island dike road, and there were dump trucks as far as I could see. The Prairie Island dike had gotten very mushy and had started to bubble out. They would get water boils that would come through and they would have to dam them up. But they were very worried about losing Prairie Island.

"As I looked down across the dike there were dump trucks everywhere. Just a solid string of dump trucks. And they dumped dirt into the Prairie Island dike all night Saturday.

"It was a very spooky place to be. If you can imagine standing on a ribbon of dirt but behind you and in front of you all you can see is water.

"While we're standing on the Prairie Island dike speculating about are they going to pull the flood workers off - all of a sudden the water started - at first it seemed like an optical illusion n but all of a sudden you could see the water start to drop. And it dropped about 18 inches in what seemed like just a few minutes - I think in reality it was about an hour. That took significant pressure off the dikes and probably is the reason that the dike didn't break.

"What had happened is the Burlington-Northern railroad dike across the river had broken and there was a good deal of marshland property back there. It flooded thousands of acres and took the top off at Winona. It was almost too miraculous to have been not man-made. That was always the story I was going to write - was it manmade, and if so who caused it to happen? I still think it was aided."

'Rising as fast as you could walk'

When the Burlington Northern tracks at Bluff Siding, Wis., gave way on the evening of April 16 (Good Friday), the river rushed into the 5,000-acre Delta Fur and Fish Farm - now the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge - rising "about as fast as you could walk." James Kahl, a 45-year-old veterinarian, was called to tend to some of the 150 cattle caught in the flood.

"When the water broke through the whatchacallit, why a lot of those animals were caught in the flood waters.

"These are beef animals. They ran the woods, and they were a wild bunch. The flood water came in so fast, it caught them up. By the time they got to them, they'd been fighting. These animals don't swim very good, you know.

"Some of them they had to pull up toward the highway there by George's. They had these animals dragged up there. They were in shock. Half of them were half-way drowned.

"They had a bunch of cars - their lights were on. We had them right up by the road. Some of them couldn't even walk, almost comatose. Their temperatures were way down.

"I gave them an injection of glucose and calcium. Calcium stimulates the system. In the old days we used to use some caffeine injections.

"I spent most of that night trying to revive some. I must have been there until 2 o'clock in the morning. I think I saved most of them."

On the front lines

Although the rupture of the Burlington Northern line took pressure off the Winona dike, the water continued to rise throughout the weekend, creating new problems as it found its way under the dike through the city's storm sewers. A 16-year-old junior at Winona High School, Al Thurley worked as a sandbagger.

"I happened to be in an area on Prairie Island Road north of the flood gates that were there at the time, just at that first curve. The standard method at that time was you have a berm of dirt, you apply huge wide sheets of polyethylene over the dirt, and then you pile sandbags from the bottom of that dike to the top.

"I remember distinctly working on the river side, because the river hadn't

gotten up to the dike yet. We had been able to work on the river side under dry conditions and complete that particular method of building and we went home and came back the next day and there was already two feet of water, so it had been done just in time.

"The storm sewers emptied directly into the river. On Sunday. we were bused to the east part of Winona, where water was backing up through the manhole.

"The method to prevent any further damage was to build a chimney of sandbags around this particular manhole n and this thing was maybe 6 or 7 feet in diameter, and you would keep adding layers of sandbags to the circular structure until the water that was boiling up from the river continued to climb in this column that you were building until it reached the level of the water in the river. I think it was six or seven feet high before the water stopped."

Sometimes, slacks are OK at work

Elaine Luksa, 29, was a switchboard operator at Fiberite, at Third and Olmstead.

"The thing I most vividly recall was going to work the cement blocked the doors up a good half-way because they were calculating how high the water would come if the dikes would break.

"So when we would go into work, we would have to walk up this sand pile that was against the side of the building. They put sand bags sort of like steps that we could walk up, then they had a step-stool on the other side of the cement block. In those days it was not real stylish for ladies to wear slacks to work, but (owner) Ben Miller gave us permission. We could wear pant-suits or slacks.

"My aunt lived on the corner of Third and Chatfield, and there was some danger of the sewers backing up and blowing the manholes open, so people in that area had to evacuate in a matter of just an hour or two notice. I remember my mother calling me at work (to ask) if my boyfriend at that time - now my husband - got done working at three o'clock if he would come and help them. My mom and dad got together and my family helped my Aunt Mimi move. In a matter of a couple of hours we moved those people the best we could, furniture and all, out of their houses.

"That day I came home a little early to help with that moving. I can remember walking down Fourth Street and people up there, too, were moving out. My goodness, what those people are going through. All these people, with pickup trucks or whatever, hauling stuff out of their houses.

"But then somebody - they had some diver - went down in there and put a balloon-type thing in the sewer to keep the water from coming."

Calling in the Guard

Tom Kukowski, 26, was a staff sergeant at the National Guard armory. On April 14, with the river more than three feet over flood stage, Mayor Ellings declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard deployed 30 troops. Two days later another 38 were deployed to help with the evacuation of 1,035 residents whose homes were not protected by the secondary dikes put up in case the primary system failed.

"I spent four days in Wabasha. Two of us drove truck to get to the hospital from the town. There was a low spot, and to get from the town of Wabasha to the hospital you had to go through that dip. The road was flooded, but our big deuce-and-a-half could go through it.

"They housed us in the Wabasha County jail in a cell. We spent four days up there and then we came back here. I think we were on flood duty about 18 days.

"We were housed at the National Guard Armory, the old one where the Historical Society is.

"The people of Winona were very good to us. They would bring food down to the armory for us. This was over Easter, and I remember one lady brought us colored Easter eggs and the whole bit.

"We evacuated parts of the East End around High Forest street. And those people were very bitter that we were doing that. And it was for their own safety.

"I remember Good Friday night when the Prairie Island dike seemed like it was moving up, in the Deer Park area it seemed like it was moving, back and forth.

"Bud Ramer was in our unit at the time. When those ice floes - from Lake Pepin would be flowing down, to keep them from them hitting the dike, he was dynamiting those things. We didn't see him for a couple, three days."

'Floods scare the heck out of me'

Ken Mogren, a 16-year-old junior at WSHS, was one of the 3,500 high school and college students who filled sandbags and patrolled the dikes. The manager of the State Employment Office estimated that as many as 5,000 workers contributed to the project.

"If the same thing happened today, I'd probably have a whole different reaction to it. I guess I just couldn't grasp the potential destruction that that flood could have caused. The typical high school kid was more excited that they closed the school and that we could get paid for working on the dikes. That was the prevailing attitude at Winona High. Now floods scare the heck out of me.

"The day the announcement came - we're going to close school starting tomorrow and any male age 16 or older should report to the Employment Office if they wanted to work on the dikes and they'd be paying $1.50 - minimum wage then was $1.25. This was big bucks. I went home and got my SS card, got down there and there was a line a block long. I thought, oh, golly, I'm too late. But they were taking every warm body.

"We had about a 15-minute film as our training on filling sandbags. They showed us a movie and said report to the trailer by Madison Silos at 6 o'clock tomorrow morning.

"They'd bring in a pile of sand. You'd have one guy with a shovel and another guy holding the bag open. You'd throw two or three shovel fulls in the bag and then someone else would carry it off and actually lay it down on the dike. It was a pretty good system. It was very well organized.

"For about three days I filled sandbags, and that's hard work. I think I see the wisdom now in paying people. It's the kind of thing you'd expect people to volunteer for, but the work was really hard, and if you had to depend on volunteers alone you might not get them back the second day. We worked 12-hour days, six in the morning until six in the afternoon, and then another shift came on.

"I can still smell that combination of wet burlap and diesel fumes. It's a smell I haven't smelled since, but I can almost relive that. Because that's what it was like working out there: wet burlap and diesel fumes.

"It was so loud because of all that great big heavy equipment. Just a parade - a parade going out and a parade going back. Just one dump truck and front-end loader and caterpillar almost bumper to bumper, all day long.

"Then the dike was pretty much done, and it was just a matter of watching for trouble spots. I lucked out. They had strung a kind of a battle-field phone system along Prairie Island. The National Guard had brought that out there. Every quarter-mile to half-mile they had a phone set up. They needed someone to man that phone so that if there was a problem we could phone it.

"We were just like a finger of sandbags out there on Prairie Island. I could look out on both sides of the dike and see water. We had no idea really just how fragile our safety really was. There never was any panic or sense of crisis. We were a hundred percent confident that this plan was going to work and we were going to beat the flood. And we did. It only struck me years later that I don't know what our odds really were of having that be successful.

"My biggest concern back then is I was on the high school golf team, and our season was really threatened and shortened. In the end it worked out that the money that I made working on the dike was spent to buy the golf clubs I had drooled over earlier in the spring. They were MacGregor Tourneys, the clubs that Jack Nicholas played. I wanted to have the same clubs he was playing.

"I would never have been able to afford those before the flood. It was nearly all the money that I made. It was close to $200, and that was all that I made out there. I blew it all on golf clubs.

"I didn't appreciate it near as much then as I do today. It seemed like no big deal at the time. I guess it really was."

Copyright 2015 Winona Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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