Take a ride on Air Oslo: Flooded town uses airboats
OSLO, Minn. -- With Oslo becoming an island the previous evening, the town's airboat took on an expanded workload Wednesday.
Because the rising Red River had overtopped all roads leading to town, the airboat was the only mode of transportation in or out. It meant for a busy -- and frosty -- day for boat pilot Orin Knutson and the other volunteer firefighters.
Wednesday began with ferrying employees of the post office, bank and car dealership to work, so commerce could proceed normally. Media members, both regional and national, were given tours to bring publicity -- and hopefully sympathetic aid -- regarding Oslo's rare circumstances.
And, six miles to the south, the Donald Solem farmstead that sits on the Red needed sandbagging. Seven volunteers traveled there, spending more than an hour to fortify the property.
While the sandbagging was routine, the trip wasn't. With the air temperature and the wind speed in the 30s, the river/lake produced whitecaps and a spray that froze in the boat bottom. Knutson estimated the wind chill at around zero because of the temperature, wind speed, boat speed (45 mph) and the air drawn in by the airplane propeller in the back of the boat.
The volunteer firefighters said they've had colder and wetter rides. One classified the water, which was stretching as much as eight miles wide, as "a good walleye chop."
The propeller is powered by a 572 cubic-inch, 750-horsepower engine, the same variety as is used for drag racing. The muscle makes the airboat fast. And loud. And a workhorse, as the boat had burned 40 gallons of gas by early afternoon.
Despite the churning water, the ride is surprisingly smooth. Even when the boat goes over roads and section lines at top speed, it feels like a speed bump.
"The boat only sits two inches in the water," Knutson said. "It almost skims over the top."
The airboat was purchased in 2008, with the city, five townships and the volunteer fire-and-rescue department sharing the $34,000 cost. During the 2009 flood, it had more than 100 engine hours.
It may reach that usage again this year, as the river is expected to remain near 38 feet for at least another week. The water flow increased enough Wednesday that Interstate 29 between the Manvel and Grafton, N.D., exits was closed. Traffic is being rerouted to U.S. Highway 81.
Fire-and-rescue personnel here are proud that Oslo was the first Red River Valley community to own an airboat. Other valley counties have followed its lead.
Population, noise lessen
Inside Oslo, life was quieter.
About 125 residents, one-third of the town's population, have relocated until the roads reopen. Karen Cote, the city clerk/treasurer, keeps track of residents' whereabouts in case an evacuation is needed.
The National Guard is expected to make a "dry run" of its evacuation plan today. If the dikes fail, residents will be directed to high ground south of the railroad tracks. Sixteen guard members are located in Oslo, with their primary duty being nighttime dike patrol.
Although most retirees remain in town, most families with school-age children have moved elsewhere. Oslo children have the choice of attending school in Warren or East Grand Forks, so families have relocated accordingly.
For students who have remained in Oslo, classes began Wednesday at the American Legion. Retired teacher Jim Havis was the supervisor for the 20 students.
"We have just about every grade covered with those 20," Havis said. "We've brought in books, supplies, a computer and a printer. But we're in the process of getting Internet in here to better communicate the homework.
"Being it's the first day, we're a bit disorganized."