A 1965 aerial view of Community Memorial Hospital flood.

Reflecting on the flood of 1965

Operation Floodwatch
Published in the August 1965 edition of Community Memorial Hospital’s publication “What Goes Here.”

On a bright, sunny, lazy day in midsummer it is hard to recall the tenseness and the feverishness of those days in April—when we were all glued to our transistor radios day and night so we wouldn’t miss a word of the Floodwatch broadcasts.

EPILOGUE…The story of the flood in Winona can best be compared to a play—with a prologue and an epilogue. As we review the highlights of the days of preparation, the period of great anxiety and ever-present fear and the time of relief when we knew we were safe. We realize our story of the flood must begin at the end—with the epilogue.

Lest we forget, Sunday, May 2, was declared a city-wide day of thanksgiving “in grateful recognition of Almighty God’s grace extended to the residents of the city of Winona that:

  • Enabled our leaders to make so many right decisions under great pressure;
  • Gave sufficient strength to the many hands that carried out the tremendous work that was needed in such a short time;
  • Caused so many thousands of people to be willing to unite in serving the community and their neighbors;
  • Spared us from great death and massive destruction of property;
  • Reminded us of the temporary nature of material things.”

PROLOGUE…It was at the April 1 meeting of department heads at Community Memorial Hospital that we first discussed the flood predictions, our situation and our responsibilities to the community. In the days that followed, the various departments of the hospital went quietly ahead with plans and preparations for protecting the hospital and serving the people of Winona in the event of a major catastrophe. This took A lot of “doing” and we think you might be interested to know how complete and far reaching these preparations were.

First, we consulted an elevation map of the city of Winona and were briefed on the elevations of several key areas, the normal river and lake levels, and the predicted flood levels and dates. A five-foot test hole beneath the hospital crawl space was dug and no seepage encountered. We then figured that anything three feet above the hospital main floor level would be safe from water, should the dikes not hold when the river crested; and each department on the first floor set about raising equipment and supplies to above the three-foot level or moving them to the third floor. The main lobby lounge took on the appearance of a deserted railway station (without furniture) and the libraries—medical and patients’—looked a bit top heavy with their books piled high to the ceiling on top shelves while the lower shelves yawned vacantly.

The main lobby looked deserted after everything was moved to safety.

Protecting information and supplies
One of the really big moving jobs was in the storerooms. With a crew of willing helpers, Melvin Brown, purchasing agent and storeroom keeper, gee’d and haw’d a goodly portion of his ten thousand items to a higher ground. This included the smallest items, such as needles, to large cartons, syringes, suture material, sponges, surgical instruments, adhesive, canes, crutches, plaster of Paris, packs, pads and diapers, as well as printed forms and stationery. “Shorty” says it was a blessing in disguise as he now has his shelves all straightened around. The same procedure was followed in the grocery storerooms, all canned and packaged supplies being hoisted to higher shelves or transferred to third floor, a really herculean project.

Herb Hunze, chief x-ray technician, “transplanted” the steel files from the x-ray department to the third floor and hundreds of x-ray films from the open shelf files were “filed” on the floor of the auditorium.

Medical files, supplies and equipment were moved to higher ground.

Beverly Olson, medical record librarian, and her staff spent long hours trucking patients’ medical records to safety via wheelchairs and stretcher carts. Space on the floor of the large auditorium and gallery was “staked out” by various departments so they could readily find their own things.

The same procedures were carried out by all departments throughout the hospital’s first floor. In addition to protecting furnishings and stores in the hospital, there was the even greater task of preparing for the possible emergency.

Preparing for possible evacuation—and continued patient care
It was decided that beginning April 14 only emergency and maternity cases would be admitted to the hospital, thereby cutting down the census as much as possible. All elective surgery would be postponed for approximately two weeks.

Should it become necessary to evacuate the hospital because of inaccessibility, patients would be cared for at the Paul Watkins Memorial Methodist Home (on high ground in the center of the city), so we moved furniture, instruments and supplies to the Home and the large garage on the grounds, sufficient to set up a 35-bed hospital. This included such large items as beds and mattresses, some operating room equipment, including an operating table, anesthesia machine and portable light. Anesthetics, consisting of 12 tanks of oxygen, 1 nitrous oxide and 1 helium, were moved to the Home so an operating room could be put into service at a moment’s notice.

One of the two Civil Defense Hospitals (200 beds) was transferred from Lourdes Hall at the College of St. Teresa to the Jefferson School when it was noted that the boiler room at the college was at a low elevation. Rooms at Jefferson were marked to serve as x-ray, operating room, delivery room, and so on, but the crates were not unpacked. Inventory lists for this hospital were distributed to such key personnel as would need them if it became necessary to put the hospital into operation.

Equipment and supplies for the Civil Defense Hospital filled a semi-truck and required seven men one full day to load and transfer, and again seven men, working all day, to return the cartons and crates to storage at Lourdes Hall and Hodgins-Mayflower Transfer Company. Cots, pillows and blankets were also supplied to the American Red Cross for use in their evacuee quarters.

The minimum amount or specialized materials and equipment required to set up a 35-bed hospital is not only vast but complex. Department heads went about with pages of inventory to make sure everything necessary would be available should the need arise. Miss Dolores Schiller, director of nursing service, and Miss Bernadine Gappa, in-service supervisor, were responsible for getting together and having moved all medical and surgical materiel. Mrs. Gesell, housekeeper, had selected and packed a sufficient amount of all linens that might he wanted for a 35-bed hospital over a period of four days, as well as cleaning products and tools.

In the Watkins home, space was assigned to several hospital functions. Medical and surgical patient beds were in one area, maternity beds in another. In addition, space was allocated for an operating room, intensive care, and a newborn nursery, for which an isolette was brought from the hospital. A separate unit was set up as an emergency room. More beds and cots were stored in the garage and could very quickly have been put up in the Central School, so conveniently just across the street from the Home, had a major emergency developed.

Considering all the crucial details
A good illustration of the amount of work involved in our preparations is the laboratory department. Bill Baechler, chief medical technologist, and his coworkers moved large equipment from the laboratory to the third floor, including the Astrup Unit, the B.M.R. machine, a floor model centrifuge, the freezer and filing cabinets, and everything else was moved up above the three-foot level. In addition, they packed 12 cases of laboratory supplies plus 20 gallons of distilled water and 6 gallons of saline, to stock the “Watkins Emergency Hospital” and the Civil Defense Hospital, if we had to split up hospital service. Each box was inventoried separately and a copy of the inventory attached to the box. Bill had a second copy, and a third copy of the inventory remained in the hospital laboratory. In all, his lists covered about a dozen sheets of paper. For instance, to perform one test, a complete blood count, 27 different items are required. Even in an emergency the laboratory had to be prepared to do tests in hematology, chemistry and urinalyses, as well as drawing and processing blood and maintaining the blood bank. Mr. Baechler and the laboratory personnel spent their evenings and Saturday and Sunday getting the multitude of items ready and moved—in the station wagon.

Because the laboratory was working at full-speed while evacuation preparations were being made, some equipment, such as microscopes, had to remain in constant use but ready to move at the last minute. Provision had to be made to keep perishables, such as plasma, by using dry ice.

Personal preparation to ensure patients are always put first
With considerable foresight, Hank Benke, maintenance superintendent, and Bill Baechler had prepared their own homes for any eventuality so that they might spend all of their time at the emergency hospitals, should our worst fears be realized. Hank had his boat ready to provide a means of transportation should this become the essential means of travel to and from the hospital.

Bill, in speaking about the great amount of time and preparation his department put into providing for the emergency hospitals, reminded us with a smile that the hospital census was not cut down very much, as we had hoped, and all of the patients in the hospital were really sick requiring more attention and service than the average patient. He describes these patients as “the sickest I ever saw!” The two students in the laboratory were sent home when the danger of flood became imminent—then called back to help—but again sent to their homes because their Winona residence was on the evacuation line.

Planning for ongoing care and service
Mrs. Erickson, our dietitian, was on vacation and missed the excitement of setting up the food service for our contemplated evacuation hospitals. Mrs. Larry Korda, relief dietitian, and Mrs. Margaret Fairman, kitchen supervisor, most efficiently took over the task of selecting, packing and transferring enough food, including baker’s supplies and canned foods, for three days at the Watkins Home. Fresh foods (meats, eggs, butter, cheese, vegetables and fruits) were packaged and kept in the hospital freezers, ready to be moved without a moment’s delay. Margaret said, in speaking of the work, “With the help of everyone in the kitchen, we finished packing at 1:00 and by 1:30 the truck was loaded and on its way to the Watkins Home.”

Dishwashing materials and complete paper service for patients, trays, dishes and the like, as well as disposable knives, forks and spoons, were some of the other items packed and moved.

Food for 30 to 50 patients for three days may not sound like too great an undertaking—but food for hospital patients means all types of special diets in addition to the regular diets—diabetic, salt free, low fat. It was planned that we would return to the hospital storerooms and freezers, by boat if necessary, for additional supplies after three days.

Serving as a link in the protective chain forged by citizens of this community
Sandbagging was carried out around the boiler room, inside as well as outside, as this is the only department at the hospital that extends below ground level. As Les Johnson of the maintenance staff put it, the men in the department slept with their transistor radios so they would be alerted and ready to report immediately to the hospital should trouble develop at the dikes.

“Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink” might easily have been the story had the dikes not held—but provision was made to prevent such a calamity at the hospital and proposed emergency or auxiliary hospitals. 75 steel drums with double plastic bag liners, each holding 17-1/2 gallons, included in the Shelter equipment at the hospital, were filled with water. Some were placed on each floor of the hospital and the others were ready to transport to the C.D. Hospital or Watkins Home.

In making our plans to serve as a link in the protective chain forged by the citizens of the community, we felt we could not afford to leave anything to chance or assume that there might be no need for increased medical services, and we planned accordingly. Staffing of the hospital at the Watkins Home and the C.D. hospital at the Jefferson School as well as our own Community Memorial building, was arranged and assignment of personnel made for the first few days.

The decision when to evacuate the hospital would have been a hard one to make but fortunately this was in the hands of such astute flood-fighters as the Civil Defense authorities and city engineers.

Prepared for the worst while hoping for the best
It was a lot of hard work—but no one regretted the effort of getting ready for the worst while we hoped for the best. It was with thankful hearts that the personnel set about the gigantic task of “undoing”—returning everything to its rightful place. As George Carrol, the pharmacist, remarked, “It took just as long to move those hundreds of bottles, boxes and packages back as it did to hike them up above the three-foot level, but we didn’t mind.”

Even the skies added to the gloom of those mid-April days. Not only did the rain seem to be falling almost constantly, hindering the work on the dikes as well as dampening our spirits, but snow fell! Somehow, we could see the little beauty in the white blanket covering the ground when we realized it would soon be a surly sea of mud.

Never has the impact of neighborliness been so keenly felt as it was through those harrowing days when we didn’t know from one minute to the next which way the tide would turn. The community spirit and unity were well exemplified by those tireless men behind the mikes of “Floodwatch” who literally held our collective hands when we needed support and assurance that we were all working together for ourselves and for one another.

The flood made history in Winona—dramatic and exciting history.


Although its name has changed over the years, Winona Health is celebrating 125 years in 2019. The independent, community-focused healthcare organization has been named one of the nations Top 100 Rural & Community Hospitals for the third consecutive year.

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