Mitch's Blog 7.0

Mitch's Blog


Monday, April 30, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: "Mucking Out"

“Mucking out” became the new buzzword in the Red River Valley as victims of the flooding began returning to their muddy, barely recognizable houses. By this time, the worst of the floodwater had gone into Manitoba, where it was besieging the small, francophone community of Sainte-Agathe.

South of the border, communities along the Red River and its tributaries north of Grand Forks were slowly recovering from what the flood had done there. With the exception of the tiny town of Robbin, Minnesota, there was, thankfully, no instance of an entire community going under water in this area. Even so, there were quite a few individual homes, businesses, and churches that did succumb to flooding. What turned out being the greatest legacy of the flood of 1997 in this region, however, is the number of people forced to relocate as a result of living on land too susceptible to flooding or in the way of proposed dikes, levees, and diversion channels intended to protect the small towns in the area. To read more about this region and its connection to the flood of 1997, see the related links below.

Throughout Grand Forks at this time, residents were returning to homes that were entirely different from the ones they had left nearly two weeks earlier. Though many would be restorable with a lot of hard work, some were nothing more than a heap of wreckage. In particular, homes that had sustained floodwaters up to their roofs in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Grand Forks and The Point and Sherlock Park neighborhoods of East Grand Forks were the worst off. In these areas, the homes would be unsalvageable; all residents could do was rummage through the debris for any small treasures that could be saved.

Even for those fortunate enough to be living in the western half of Grand Forks and be unaffected by the floodwaters, there remained a sense of discomfort. Electrical, water, and sewer systems were still nonexistent in Grand Forks on April 30. Though the water system (as well as the emergency room in the city’s hospital) was restored on May 2, it would still be many more days before residents had dependable electricity in their homes. Nighttime curfews remained in effect, with officials asking all people who had decided to move back into their homes not to go anywhere after dark.

Getting rid of flood-damaged material accelerated after May 1 when residents in flood-stricken areas of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks began trudging down into their still-wet basements and emerged with armfuls of debris that would then be piled onto increasingly taller heaps on lawns, sidewalks, berms, and city streets. After it was discovered that out-of-towners were ruthlessly coming and taking flood-damaged appliances so that they could resell them later, angry homeowners began spray-painting messages on the items or “customizing” them with several bashes from a baseball bat (also known as “flood therapy”).

The recollections of several UND students from Grand Forks upon returning to their hometown are recounted in the book published by UND following the flood:
“I was not prepared to see the cars that were sitting on lawns because they had floated there in the flood. I did not expect to see houses off their foundations, with water lines left by the flood next to the roof. I was also not prepared for the smell. The hardest thing that I had to deal with upon returning was having no water. I did not like having no showers and using outhouses.”

“When we arrived, I never expected to see what I saw. Driving over the bridge on Gateway Drive, I saw a living room recliner hanging on the side of the bridge, children’s toys littering the streets, and household items scattered everywhere. Reaching our home, I was absolutely horrified because everything I owned was ruined. I eventually managed to salvage a few things from my room, like a few dirty, curled-up pictures and a couple of special letters, which were now crinkled, smeared, and brown. It was then I realized everything I now owned fit into a shoe box.”

“When I entered Grand Forks, I immediately covered my nose because the stench was so strong and crude. It took a while to get used to it. I didn’t really know what to expect to see, maybe a few puddles of water. What I did see was garbage lying all over. Empty sandbags were scattered on the sides of roads, some furniture pieces in people’s yards, and porta-potties on every street corner.”
At UND during this time, students living in the residence halls east of the English Coulee were asked to get their belongings beginning May 1. It remained vital to clean the residence halls up as quickly as possible, since UND was committed to doing what it could to permit flood victims to have temporary housing over the summer. One of the problems standing in the way of this, however, was the extensive damage that had taken place in the lower levels of the Bek, Hancock, Johnstone, Smith, Squires, and Swanson Residence Halls. In order to hasten the clean-up efforts, FEMA formally approached the university to provide beds for up to 1,000 evacuees and assist with clean-up costs for all the residence halls.

The campus was slowly returning to normal, even as new problems continued to be discovered. One of these dealt with the underground steam system on campus. Once it was restarted, large “geysers” of steam began spraying out of the ground, signifying that the insulation on the pipes transferring the steam had disintegrated during the flood.

The first contracts were awarded for flood clean-up, and work quickly began on thoroughly drying out all buildings on campus. Any material that had gotten wet in the flood was removed at once; walls and floors were power-washed, scrubbed, bleached, scraped, disinfected, and washed again. In the end, attacking any potential problems caused by mold or other microorganisms saved the university an untold amount of money. As others in Grand Forks would find out, the longer a flood-damaged building was left to stand after the flood, the greater the problems stemming from mold and other contamination became.

President Kendell Baker in the first few days of May announced that the University would officially reopen on Thursday, May 8. As scheduled, the following Monday, May 12, would mark the first day of the 1997 summer semester.

Check back around May 5 for the next installment in this series.

Links related to this entry:
Click here to read about the changes that have taken place in the Red River Valley north of Grand Forks in the 10 years since the flood (registration may be required).

Something I haven't really covered is the anger many in the Red River Valley felt toward the National Weather Service, and its faulty predictions, in the weeks immediately following the flood. Click here to read an article describing how the National Weather Service has changed how it predicts major flooding events in the wake of the Flood of 1997 (registration may be required).

Videos related to this entry:
After being forced out of their homes in the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area nearly two weeks earlier, there remained many flood victims scattered around the region on April 30.

A profile of Grand Forks' mayor Pat Owens, whose commendable leadership during the devastating flooding and subsequent recovery of her city has been praised as being one of the reasons Grand Forks has rebounded so well 10 years after the flood.

On May 2, the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Grand Forks remains lifeless and utterly devastated. This report, narrated as only KARE 11's Ken Speake could, was one of the most memorable following the flood.

Pictures related to this entry:

Sources used in writing this entry:
Beyond the Flood. Videocassette. Minnesota Broadcasters Association, 1997.

Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Staff of the [Fargo] Forum, comp. Fighting Back: the Blizzards and Flood in the Red River Valley, 1996-97. Fargo, ND: Forum Communications Company, 1997.

Staff of the Grand Forks Herald and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, comp. Come Hell and High Water: the Incredible Story of the 1997 Red River Flood. Grand Forks, ND: Grand Forks Herald, 1997.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, April 27, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: An Angel gives a Gift

After being separated for 10 days, the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were linked together once again on April 28 when the Kennedy Bridge crossing the Red River on U.S. Highway 2 reopened. This unexpectedly turned into a momentous event after numerous residents decided to get in their vehicles and wait for their chance just to be one of the first to cross the newly-opened bridge.

The bridge reopening was a piece of good news among the all the grim at the time. The Red River was continuing to drop, and, consequently, more and more residents of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were being allowed back into their homes. However, with electricity still severed, water and sewer systems still down, and water still trapped in the basements of the homes in many of the neighborhoods being opened up, residents were only allowed to come back during the daytime hours; they had to return to their temporary homes after dark. What many residents came back to were homes that were, at best, cold and desolate and, at worst, barely recognizable. Although many wanted to assess their damages and begin the long cleanup process right away, this was made complicated by the water remaining in basements. In order to prevent basement walls from collapsing, both Grand Forks and East Grand Forks city officials cautioned against being too quick to pump any water out.

The first rough estimate of property damage in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks came in on April 26, and it was pegged at $775 million. What could not be calculated, however, were the costs resulting in the residents’ loss of family treasures and confidence in themselves and their future.

The spirits of local residents were lifted greatly on April 29, though, when a miraculous gift from an “angel” was announced. A woman who did not wish to be identified pledged to donate $15 million to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, allowing each household in the two cities to receive $2,000. Only after news media tracked down ownership of the airplane she used to survey flood damage in the area was the incredible philanthropist identified as Joan Kroc, a Minnesota native and widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. She had been in the area working anonymously with the many relief agencies in the area assisting flood victims.

Elsewhere around the Red River Valley at this time, Interstate 29 was slowly being opened between Fargo and the U.S.-Canada border. The stretch from Grand Forks to Fargo, which had been closed for 16 days, reopened on April 27. This was a relief to many motorists who were getting increasingly frustrated with the worsening conditions on the back road that was being used as a detour between the two cities.

After cresting at 54.94 feet in Pembina, ND and St. Vincent, MN on April 26, the Red River was also falling there, meaning that the flood of 1997 was over for people living south of the border. Although this was the highest crest ever seen in the cities of Pembina and St. Vincent, major damages were avoided thanks to the diligent efforts in raising dikes as well as higher crest predictions that ended up not materializing.

Work continued at UND to bring the campus back to a resemblance of normal. Power systems, which had been completely shut off before major flooding occurred, were drying out and being brought back online. Making the decision to turn off electricity before water entered buildings ended up being one of the wisest things done at UND, since electrical equipment that is shut off before getting wet needs only to be completely dried out before being turned back on. On the other hand, electrical equipment that is left on while wet usually needs to be replaced completely and at a great cost.

All residence halls behind Wilkerson Hall were officially opened up on April 29 so that students could retrieve their belongings. Enough resident assistants had returned to allow the check-out process to run smoothly.

Inspections of campus buildings inevitably revealed new, unexpected damages during this time. Elevators, which are normally programmed to go to the lowest level in a building when power to them is shut off, were flooded in many places. Sewer systems, sidewalks, and the electrical, steam, and telecommunications tunnels underneath the campus also showed significant damages.

Check back around April 30 for the next installment in this series.

Videos related to this entry:
An "angel" comes to help the citizens of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks in the form of $2,000 checks.

Pictures related to this entry:

Sources used in writing this entry:
Beyond the Flood. Videocassette. Minnesota Broadcasters Association, 1997.

Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Staff of the [Fargo] Forum, comp. Fighting Back: the Blizzards and Flood in the Red River Valley, 1996-97. Fargo, ND: Forum Communications Company, 1997.

Staff of the Grand Forks Herald and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, comp. Come Hell and High Water: the Incredible Story of the 1997 Red River Flood. Grand Forks, ND: Grand Forks Herald, 1997.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: Cleanup Begins

By April 25, the flood of 1997 was slowly coming to an end south of the United States-Canada border. The worst of the floodwater was coming into Pembina, North Dakota and St. Vincent, Minnesota – two cities just slightly south of the border. Though residents of both cities had to wage the same sort of battles as had been waged upstream in places such as Grand Forks, Fargo, and Wahpeton, they were largely spared the same fate as had befallen the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. One of the reasons for this was that the Red River spread out farther and became wider as it flowed north of Grand Forks. Although this meant more land – mostly farmfields – went underwater, it also meant that the water flowed slower and with less force. This allowed dikes, including the plywood one defending the city of Drayton, North Dakota, to be slightly more effective. Another saving grace for the residents north of Grand Forks was their ability to see the major destruction upstream and better prepare themselves for the water’s onslaught.

Perhaps nobody was more acutely aware of the water’s potentially devastating effects than those living along the Red River in Manitoba. For days, people there had been tuned to Grand Forks’ local television station, WDAZ-TV, wondering what the water was going to do once it got to their communities. In the end, about 2,500 homes in Manitoba were destroyed, with 100 eventually being demolished altogether. Even so, only one community, Sainte-Agathe, was completely submerged by water during what was known as the “flood of the century” and what had prompted one of the largest mass evacuations in the history of Manitoba. In Manitoba’s capital and most populous city, Winnipeg, flooding ended up being minimal thanks in large part to a diversion channel built after a destructive flood there nearly a half century earlier as well as a massive earthen dike constructed just days before the worst of the floodwater reached the area. Had these two things not been in place to protect the city, the majority of Winnipeg might have gone under, and well over 500,000 Winnipeggers might have had their homes damaged or destroyed.

In Grand Forks at this time, the Red River still remained very high, above the 50 foot mark. Nevertheless, the water was clearly receding, and some houses that had been sitting in water a few days before were now dry on the outside. This allowed the National Guard on April 24 to let some people back into the city for a few hours to check on the condition of their homes. Others would be allowed back in as the water continued to fall and their safety could be assured.

Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited Grand Forks and East Grand Forks on April 25. He got a look at the damage firsthand and reaffirmed President Clinton’s pledge of 3 days earlier to get aid from the federal government into the region as quickly as possible.

Fargo was slowly returning to normal. On April 25, city crews began taking down the emergency earthen dike built south of town as well as some of the earthen dikes built on downtown streets. By April 26, the Red River dropped below 36 feet, signaling that the worst of the floodwater had left. The flood had damaged 86 homes in Fargo and 41 homes in Moorhead.

At UND during this time, the “virtual university” was virtually a reality. The deans for each of the colleges on campus had been set up with a “virtual office” consisting of a chair, table, and telephone. Email access was restored on April 24.

The UND call center continued to be flooded with nearly 2,500 calls a day. Of course, there were a lot of very similar questions, and in order to deal with this, University Relations made fact sheets and news releases covering the most frequently asked questions. This information was then posted on UND’s website or placed in newspapers wherever evacuees had scattered throughout the region.

One frequent question dealt with housing. With so many people in the area unsure if they would have a house to come back to, many wanted to know what sort of temporary housing UND could provide. With the knowledge that the university could use its residence halls to house flood victims during the summer, officials made it a top priority to get Brannon Hall cleaned as quickly as possible so that it could be the first residence hall made available for disaster housing.

But in order to get the residence halls open for temporary housing, flood damage had to be cleaned up, the buildings had to be safe to live in, and, perhaps most importantly at first, students’ belongings had to be taken out. Because of this, all residence halls west of the coulee – West, McVey, Brannon, Selke, and Noren – were opened on April 25 for students to check-out. With the sewer system still down and few housing staff on hand, conditions were less than ideal. Nevertheless, about 15 to 20 students moved out on April 25, with more continuing to do so during the next couple days.

The payroll run, a normally routine operation for UND, was carried out under extraordinary conditions on April 25. UND’s mainframe computer generates payroll not only for employees of UND, but for employees at all the other higher education institutes in North Dakota. This became a problem because, after flooding threatened all buildings at UND, the mainframe was disassembled and taken to NDSU in Fargo. Therefore, in order to run the payroll, technicians had to recover databases and restore software systems at this remote location. Although they very came close to not making it, UND Payroll staff members were able to enter every available timeslip and payroll revision by Friday (the 25th), making payday came on time for all those employed at one of the 11 campuses in the North Dakota University System.

Check back around April 27 for the next installment in this series.

Links related to this entry:
Click here to read an article that appeared in Tuesday's Grand Forks Herald describing the plywood wall keeping the town of Drayton, North Dakota dry during this time in 1997 (registration may be required).

Videos related to this entry:
The 10 o'clock KARE 11 news from April 25 shows recovery efforts getting underway in Grand Forks and Newt Gingrich visiting the region.

A report on the journalists diligently working to get information to flood victims scattered throughout the region - including the use of maps to give callers an idea of possible flood damage around their homes

Pictures related to this entry:

Sources used in writing this entry:
Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Staff of the [Fargo] Forum, comp. Fighting Back: the Blizzards and Flood in the Red River Valley, 1996-97. Fargo, ND: Forum Communications Company, 1997.

Staff of the Grand Forks Herald and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, comp. Come Hell and High Water: the Incredible Story of the 1997 Red River Flood. Grand Forks, ND: Grand Forks Herald, 1997.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, April 23, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: "Turning the Corner"

April 23 bought more good news to the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Although many houses nearest to the river still had water up to their rooftops, in other places of the city, it was quite apparent that the floodwater was receding. The Red River, at the moment one of the widest rivers in North America, was finally reverting back to its tamer, narrower self.

The cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks continued to be virtually empty, and it appeared that they would be that way for at least a few more days. Those living in areas left relatively dry would be able to come back to their homes the soonest, but those living in the areas entirely inundated would have to wait much longer – a couple of weeks in some cases.

Everybody who evacuated seemed to have one question – “how deep was the water in my part of town?” To try to answer this, KCNN Radio, which had become one of the most important providers of news during the flood, sifted through videotape footage and other reports to put together a map of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks that showed how deep the water had gotten in the different parts of the cities. All one needed to do was call into the station, give his or her address, and somebody at a phone bank would look at the map and estimate how high the water had been. People reacted differently to the news, with some relieved that water had not gotten as high as they had feared and others finally beginning to get a sense of how much post-flood cleanup would be required once they were allowed back into their home.

As the river continued to fall, the sewer system in the city of Grand Forks was slowly brought back online. By the end of the day, 16 of 36 lift stations in the city were working. At the Grand Forks Air Base, the number of evacuees still there had decreased to 600, with more and more people finding temporary housing elsewhere.

Media attention continued to be focused on Grand Forks and East Grand Forks as Elizabeth Dole, President of the American Red Cross, came to town. She toured flooded areas with North Dakota First Lady Nancy Shafer and Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens.

At UND on April 23, recovery efforts increased. After making an inspection of nearly all the university’s buildings the day before, Plant Services officials put together a color-coded campus map that indicated which buildings had sustained flood damage and the extent to which damage occurred. This map became important because it gave university officials a good idea of which buildings would likely be ready for use during the summer semester, which was still expected to begin as scheduled on May 12.

The phone bank that was an essential part of UND’s “virtual university” became operational on this day, and incoming phone calls numbered into the thousands. It took a team of 20 staff working rotating shifts to ensure the call center ran smoothly.

For the first time since the university canceled the remainder of the spring semester, all of the academic deans got together. One of their first priorities was to contact each person scheduled to teach in the summer and find out if he or she would be able to beginning on the 12th. There ended up being only one faculty member who was unable to.

One of the happiest moments on campus came in the evening when Food Service employees provided the first “Red Tag Dinner,” as they would later come to be known, to university officials with “red tags” – tags that identified them as being associated with the university. Even though the menu was limited to whatever was in storage in the Food Services Building, the dinners provided those camped out at the university some of their first hot meals in days.

Water continued to recede downstream in Fargo on this day as well. Cleanup of the Oak Grove Lutheran School and surrounding neighborhood began with help from faculty and students from Hillcrest Lutheran Academy in Fergus Falls. The town of Ada also intensified its cleanup efforts after it was reported that most of the town’s 1,700 residents had returned.

Check back on April 25 for the next installment in this series.

Pictures related to this entry:
Here is one of those maps that shows the extent of flood damage in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

Sources used in writing this entry:
Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Staff of the [Fargo] Forum, comp. Fighting Back: the Blizzards and Flood in the Red River Valley, 1996-97. Fargo, ND: Forum Communications Company, 1997.

Staff of the Grand Forks Herald and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, comp. Come Hell and High Water: the Incredible Story of the 1997 Red River Flood. Grand Forks, ND: Grand Forks Herald, 1997.

Varley, Jane. Flood Stage and Rising. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: President Clinton Visits

This Grand Forks Herald article recalling the events of April 22, 1997 was put together by staff writer Mike Brue.

On the day a U.S. president came to Greater Grand Forks, the Red River's record flood crest did, too.

The path to disaster was ending.

Bill Clinton's visit brought more national and international attention to the series of disasters that pummeled Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and the Red River valley.

The river's historic peak at the official downtown gauge was 54.35 feet, more than 26 feet above flood stage and about 5 feet higher than 1979's record. Because floodwaters were expected to hover near crest levels for several days, few people paid close attention to the exact river level.

The flooding behemoth already spoke devastating volumes, and continued to do so loud enough to prompt the presidential visit.

Air Force One brought Bill Clinton to Grand Forks Air Force Base, where he and other federal disaster officials would tour the great Flood of 1997 firsthand, offer encouragement and bring news about expanded disaster assistance.

"You bring us hope," added Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens, showing some emotion.

Shortly after his arrival, Clinton and other officials boarded helicopters to get a better look at the disaster. From the air, they saw virtually all of East Grand Forks and roughly three-quarters of Grand Forks in or under water. They flew over the remains of 11 downtown buildings damaged or destroyed in a weekend fire. They viewed a massive landscape of water, spread miles wide and stretched far in to the north and south horizons.

They looked, and they said little.
Back in an Air Force base 3-Bay Hanger, standing before about 3,000 people, many of them flood evacuees, Clinton took center stage, a group of federal, North Dakota, Minnesota and Air Force dignitaries and an enormous American flag behind him.

Among the dignitaries: East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss, wearing a jacket with big "USA" letters, and Owens "wearing the heart and soul of my community," she told the president.

"Welcome to Water World Mr. President," a sign said.

A large spotlight overhead fizzled, then popped loudly. People flinched. Pause. Clinton, looking up, pointed to the source of the commotion.

"Well," he said, "we've had a fire, a flood, a blizzard I think we can handle this."

Laughter. Relief.

Clinton talked about TV images of sandbagging during a blizzard, about having never seen a series of disasters hit one area like this. "You don't have to be ashamed if you're heartbroken," he said.

He told of authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse 100 percent of local governments' flood expenses, rather than the usual 75 percent. He said he was asking Congress for $448 million in Midwest disaster relief, $200 million more than first requested.

The president then alluded to the faith and spirit of the region's people: "Water cannot wash that away, fire cannot burn that away, and a blizzard cannot freeze that away," he said.

By mid-afternoon, the president was gone.

From the air, Clinton could not see the details in two cities of a past life stopped in time by high water.

"Sandbaggers needed," a sign read. "Please report to the Civic Center."

A billboard advertising the Shrine Circus April 25-27 in Grand Forks. Dogs barking inside homes. The glow from a TV screen visible through a window.

River currents ignored the reds, yellows and greens of working traffic signals. Basketball hoops peaked above floodwaters.

"It's like the Twilight Zone," said Cheryl Westfall, a police 911 supervisor, as she passed through a north side neighborhood with other police personnel.

Downtown, every street was Canal Street. A wrecking ball occasionally knocked down the remains of burned buildings. Boats and huge National Guard trucks provided traffic and transportation.

A rubber raft outside the County Courthouse was the only sign of a document rescue inside. Nearby, with help from the National Guard, local law enforcement revisited the flooded police department building. Police retrieved supplies and computer equipment to bring back to the U.S. Army Reserve Center west of town, which served as a temporary police station.

"It's Vietnam all over again," said Mike Flannery, a war veteran-turned-police officer. "Hueys in the air. You eat what you can when you can. . . .Camouflage all over."

Evacuations continued in areas that were supposed to have been cleared. A U.S. Coast Guard boat came to a Sixth Avenue North home, where a white towel hung from the door. "I just decided it was no use," said the resident, holed up for three days with his bird and fish. "I thought I could wait it out. I couldn't."

Still, no reports of lives lost to flooding in the two cities.

Evacuees were scattered across communities from Devils Lake to Duluth, from Minneapolis to Minot, from Watford City, N.D., to Winnipeg.

One example: Larimore, N.D., pop. 1,500, suddenly about 2,000 people larger, with about 100 Grand Forks students already enrolled at school and about 30 residents of Grand Forks' Tufte Manor residing in the school gym.

At Mayville, N.D., about 900 Grand Forks evacuees were welcomed guests. "You visit people. You go for walks. When you see and talk to all of the people here from Grand Forks, you still feel like a part of Grand Forks," evacuee Darryl Tunseth said. "But (the flood) is always in the back of your mind. You're always in limbo, wondering what's going on."

Mayville State University canceled the rest of spring classes on this day; its dormitories helped shelter evacuees. The college's latest newsletter, "The High Ground News," offered pertinent information, including helpful phone numbers and things to do.

"We joined together as a community to fight the flood," said Rick Cornell, another Grand Forks evacuee at Mayville. "I hope we do the same to rebuild."

The Flood of '97 was far from over. Downstream cities and towns and surrounding rural residents still faced flood battles. Many people upstream still dealt with high water, or at least faced what was gained and lost.

But for Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, on a day a president visited and the Red quit rising, amid widespread shock, heartbreaking loss and historic evacuation, the earliest signs of recovery were showing.
Although he only stayed a short while, President Clinton’s stop in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks proved to be just the sort of thing that the cities needed to lift their spirits. Many residents felt comforted to know that people far away in Washington D.C. were willing to look after the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

At UND on April 22, the general consensus was that the university was “holding its own.” At the 9 AM flood recovery meeting, President Kendell Baker continued to outline the steps that would be taken to build the “virtual university” that would be in place until all UND departments could be operating as normal. The plans called for this “virtual university” to be fully operational by April 28.

Talk also began to center around how UND could help in recovery efforts of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. It was generally agreed that the university’s greatest asset would probably be its residence halls; they could turned into temporary housing for flood victims. With this in mind, a task force was created to develop plans to get the halls opened as soon as possible. Although a few had taken in water in their basements, the main problem at first was the fact that students had left most of their personal belongings in their rooms after the call went out to evacuate. UND would need to get the residence halls open as quickly as possible in order for students to come back and retrieve their possessions.

Elsewhere on campus, Plant Services officials began going into buildings to assess damage. With a volunteer cameraman from the UND television center, LeRoy Sondrol, head of Plant Services, led a small group into three heavily damaged buildings – the medical school, Smith Hall, and the USDA Nutrition Research Center. Although the latter building is operated and maintained by the USDA, Denise Schaefer, the animal caretaker at the center, asked to see the inside of the building. So the group went inside.

What they found was startling. There was about a foot and a half of water covering the ground floor, and electricity was still on in the entire building. What’s more, there was smoke coming from the mechanical/boiler room. The early makings of an electrical fire, like the kind that eventually bought down 11 buildings in downtown Grand Forks 3 days earlier were apparent. In desperation, the group quickly left the building, and Sondrol got on a cell phone to summon the fire department and get NSP (now Xcel Energy) to turn off the power right away. Luckily, the power was cut in time. However, had nobody gone in to inspect the building, a very damaging fire easily could have occurred.

More inspections during the day revealed even more damage. The lower levels of the Memorial Union, Swanson Hall (a residence hall), and Wilkerson Hall all were completely filled with water. Lesser amounts of water, in the 1-2 foot range, could be found in the basements of Montgomery, Walsh, Squires, Bek, Leonard, Robertson-Sayre, and Corwin-Larimore Halls as well as the Era Bell Thompson and Native American Centers.

Good news could be found on campus, however. University officials residing in their new “homes” at the Plant Services building were treated to a hot lunch of scalloped potatoes and ham. They had also received one portable kitchen, with two more on the way. Even so, it was hard for many of the employees to not know how their own houses within the community had fared. The book published by UND after the flood describes how, at the end of a long day’s work, many would get on the phone and dial up their home phone numbers. If the call went through, the phone lines in the house had stayed dry. A busy signal, on the other hand, meant that water was in the house and the phone lines had been compromised.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.

Links related to this entry:
Click here to read a transcript of President Clinton's speech.

Videos related to this entry:
President Clinton visits Grand Forks and East Grand Forks

A report on the Grand Forks Herald during the flood. Despite losing its building first to floodwaters and then to fire, the newspaper never missed an issue. Free copies were delivered daily to flood victims throughout the area so that they could get flood-related news from a local perspective.

This is the video shot on the UND campus on April 22. As stated in the beginning, the original intent of this video was to get emergency relief funding from the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education.

The first 9 or so minutes of the KARE 11 10 o'clock news from April 22, 1997

Pictures related to this entry:

Sources used in writing this entry:
Beyond the Flood. Videocassette. Minnesota Broadcasters Association, 1997.

Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: The Red Finally Crests in Grand Forks

This Grand Forks Herald article recalling the events of April 21, 1997 was put together by staff writer Mike Brue.

It was a Monday, the start of the work week, 10 years ago today.

Business, though, was anything but usual in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, epicenter of the dramatic Red River Valley flood and fire, and the site of what some authorities called an urban disaster displacement on a scale then unmatched in American history.

Cranes moved into flooded downtown Grand Forks to knock some walls down on buildings damaged by the dramatic weekend fire. “It doesn't seem real,” Deputy Fire Chief Pete O'Neill told reporters. “You want to wake up from some dream.”

Finally, the Red River seemed about to crest. That, in turn, slowed the spread of floodwater across the nearly level urban landscape. It reached 54.11 feet, more than 5 feet above the 1979 record crest.

Again on this day, flood tours gave emergency officials, government leaders and news media first-hand looks at the damage in mandatory evacuation areas. As much as several dozen feet deep in places, floodwaters from the Red and Red Lake rivers spread a quilt of raw sewage, fuel and debris for several miles beyond the dikes that failed to contain it. Homes, garages, businesses, vehicles and signs stood in water, or sometimes under it.

“You'll probably hit (cars) before you see them,” DNR conservation officer Tom Campbell said during a boat ride Sunday over some East Grand Forks' streets.

Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota's 7th District was one of the boat passengers who ducked under telephone and power lines en route to sights of homes tipped off their foundations. “I went to Breckenridge (Saturday), and I thought that was bad,” he said. “But this is unbelievable.”

On this Monday, Peterson added, “The normal disaster relief is not going to work.”

Greater Grand Forks leaders learned that President Bill Clinton would come to Grand Forks Air Force Base on Tuesday to hear their concerns and tour the area in a helicopter. In Washington, Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt and other White House officials joined members of Congress to discuss Red River Valley federal aid needs.

Increasingly, flood victims sought out FEMA's toll-free number to register for disaster assistance. But few calls came from Greater Grand Forks proper, though U S West workers so far successfully kept their water-surrounded downtown service center - and the area's dial tone, 911 and other government circuits - in working order.

About 85 percent of Grand Forks' population of 52,000 had evacuated, either by mandate or voluntarily. Only about 250 of East Grand Forks' nearly 9,000 residents remained.

“What I'm afraid of,” said the Rev. William Sherman of Grand Forks' flooded St. Michael's Catholic Church, “is that once reality sets in, there will be anguish and anxiety.”

On this day, Greater Grand Forks' public schools and the East Side's parochial Sacred Heart School canceled the remainder of their school years for teachers, staff and some 12,000 displaced students. Officials said all but one of the schools within the two city limits had some type of flood damage.

Grand Forks County Commissioners met in Larimore, about 30 miles west of Grand Forks, to begin moving the base for county services, primarily into the town's Masonic Temple.

A few businesses remained open on the flood-free edges of Greater Grand Forks, including a couple of hotels, the temporary quarters for officials from two cities and many emergency personnel.

“There's nothing to come back to now,” said East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss, who helped set up a temporary City Hall at the Comfort Inn on U.S. Highway 2. “We have to, basically, rebuild our community.”

The National Guard and other agencies still fought floodwaters at the East Side's water treatment plant, police station, cellular communications tower and other essential areas.

In west Grand Forks, at a camouflaged tanker parked near the Ramada Inn, remaining residents filled jugs with fresh water from 2,000-gallon tanks, dubbed “water buffaloes.” The tanks contained water from the Turtle River and area reservoirs, purified for three hours with heavy chlorination by the Guard's reverse-osmosis water purification unit.

On Grand Forks' southwest side, 10 postal workers - about 75 fewer than normal - sorted mail for shipment to northeast North Dakota post offices. Walk-up mail service was planned to start within a day or two at Grand Forks Air Force Base, home to more than 3,000 evacuees, and Crookston, where more than 4,000 evacuees either registered or sought shelter. “We're not accepting any change of address for evacuees yet,” a Fargo postal official said.

Evacuees had spread to shelters set up by communities throughout the region, or they accepted one of thousands of offers from complete strangers who opened up their homes out of compassion and a feeling of helplessness.

Fargo and Moorhead was a detour-obstructed destination for thousands, despite those cities' own recent fierce flood battles. “We got out with very little. Not even a suitcase,” said Jean Haus, who left their 24th Avenue South home near the river. She and her daughter, Judy, went to the Fargo Target to take advantage of a 20-percent discount for evacuees.

New elevated crest forecasts on this day added to the stress of residents in downstream Red River towns Pembina and Drayton, N.D., and nearby rural residents north of Greater Grand Forks. The National Weather Service's revisions for crests, expected within two to four days, leapfrogged one or more feet over the cities' urgent dike preparations.

But closer to Grand Forks, Oslo, Minn.,'s 31-year-old clay ring dike was holding. Floodwaters prevented virtually all but National Guard travel in and out of town, but farmer/volunteer firefighter Orin Knutson and farmhand Riley Farder brought two crates of mail from the Alvarado, Minn., post office, one day after hauling in a 10-day supply of groceries.

Said Gary Durand, head of Marshall County's emergency services: “They're like a sovereign nation or something.”
Most activity at UND on April 21 began to center around flood recovery efforts. At one of the twice-daily staff meetings, plans were drawn up to start a phone bank that UND students (and their parents), staff, faculty could call into and receive answers to any questions they might have. Additionally, the university was committed to using the latest in technology to create a “virtual university” that would be capable to performing the university’s core functions until it could operate as normal. President Kendell Baker called on employees temporarily moved to the Plant Services building to create a “University of the 21st Century.”

There remained some serious flooding problems on campus on April 21, though. Floodwaters were out of control inside the miles and miles of underground steam, water, and telecommunications tunnels on campus, and this water was still threatening to enter buildings and cause them to flood from within.

University Avenue was essentially a river through most of the eastern half of the campus with water overtaking the basements of the many fraternities and sororities that line the street. Also affected by water on the eastern end of the university were the USDA Human Nutrition Center, the [old] Ralph Engelstad Arena, and Memorial Stadium, where the Astroturf of the football field could be seen flooding on top of a foot of water.

Later in the day, after a prolonged effort to stave off flooding, several buildings at the Energy and Envrionmental Research Center (EERC) also succumbed to the water.

Farther to the west, Wilkerson Hall now had water pushing up to its entrance and a submerged lower level. Selke and Noren Halls, two residence halls behind Wilkerson, also had water coming into their basements.

During the day, word had spread that the downtown fire was likely electrical in nature, caused by not shutting off power to buildings before they flooded. This was a serious concern for UND officials, as they realized that the electricity was still on in most buildings on campus. A frantic effort then began to go into all buildings and make sure power was turned off. By evening, electricity was off in most places, with the exception of the USDA Research Center. For a couple of reasons – the most important being that nobody at UND could get in contact with the operator of the building, the USDA – electricity at this building was not shut off.

Personnel at UND Flight Operations worked hard on April 21 giving helicopter rides for university, state, and local leaders. These rides provided the leaders with some of their first views of the extent of damage to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

UND also began providing much-needed workspace for the hundreds of journalists that had come to Grand Forks from all parts of the country. The university’s Television Center, housed in the newly-completed Ryan Hall on the far western end of campus, was made available for use by national media outlets, including NBC and CNN.

However, perhaps the most significant event of April 21 was President Baker’s early-evening announcement that UND’s summer session would be held as scheduled beginning on May 12. Although many thought the president had “gone nuts,” he stood firm and said he was committed to do everything he could to have the university open in time, to prove that UND was not going to let the flood of 1997 wash it away.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.

Videos related to this entry:
Aerial views on April 21, 1997 show the "devastation beyond belief in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks"

Watch as the Emergency Animal Rescue Service rescues stranded pets in Grand Forks

WCCO-TV reports on what life is like for the thousands of flood evacuees living at the Grand Forks Air Force Base

The first seven or so minutes of the KARE 11 10 o'clock news from April 21, 1997

Pictures related to this entry:

Sources used in writing this entry:
Beyond the Flood. Videocassette. Minnesota Broadcasters Association, 1997.

Floodwatch '97. Videocassette. WDAY Television News, 1997.

Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, April 20, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: The Grand Cities Empty Out

This Grand Forks Herald article recalling the events of April 19, 1997 was put together by staff writer Mike Brue.

Floodwaters covered most of Greater Grand Forks 10 years ago today, just as one smoldering city ran out of water.

It was a Sunday, and thanks to television and print images, a captive nation and even international audiences was seeing the breadth of disaster that struck the 60,000 residents of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

"It's even worse than you could imagine," said Joe Simon, working with Grand Forks emergency operations. "We're getting the hell beat out of us by the river."

Stunned area residents struggled to believe their own eyes, while the innocent questions of children gave them pause.

"Mom," Sharon Fox Bogen's 3-year-old son asked while watching TV, "is that our town?"

Fox Borgen, a lay minister, and her husband, the Rev. Phil Bogen, fought floodwaters at their Central Plains Court home, but ended up evacuating and staying with friends. On this morning, she preached at Evanger Lutheran Church in rural Grand Forks to a congregation that included other flood victims. "Jesus is our strong dike, one that will never give way," Fox Bogen said, her voice at times breaking. "One that can protect us and deliver us from evil."

In Grand Forks, it seemed as though the only visible smile was on a water tower and both were empty. The city's water supply dried up. The water treatment plant on downtown's southern edge was inoperable and surrounded by floodwaters. Running water might be at least three weeks away, City Engineer Ken Vein said.

Without water, even many remaining residents on dry ground chose to leave. By day's end, the city's estimate of evacuees numbered at least 37,000 of its 52,000 residents.

In East Grand Forks, where floodwaters from the Red and Red Lake rivers reportedly touched almost the entire city, at least 95 percent of its more than 8,000 residents were gone by Sunday night, Mayor Lynn Stauss said.

Daylight revealed the damage downtown from a fire that began Saturday afternoon in the flooded Security Building. The morning-after televised images seemed war-like. Firefighters, forced to battle flames in bone-chilling floodwaters well beyond midnight, acknowledged that damage could have been even worse.

The Security Building's burned-out brown brick shell left a lasting impression as it towered over brown water. Ten other buildings, scattered over four city blocks, were in similar ruins or severely damaged. The victims included First National Bank, First Financial Center, Griggs Landing bar, Bonzer's Sandwich Pub and the Formal Affair shop.

Fire also destroyed the [Grand Forks] Herald's annex building, which housed the newsroom, finance and circulation offices and the paper's library, with its decades of newspaper clippings and photos. "I care less about my house than I do about those archives," said Jenelle Stadstad, the paper's library manager. "My stuff can be replaced, but all of our history is gone."

The newspaper left its Saturday home at UND and moved into the Manvel, N.D., public school. With the Herald's pressroom flooded, the St. Paul Pioneer Press printed the Herald's Sunday edition and would handle Monday's, too.

At UND, spring semester was cancelled Saturday, leaving the university facing a growing flood concern. Red River backwater into the English Coulee moved into the campus from the north. Like some other still-dry neighborhoods, UND was in the path of a slow, relentless spread of water pushing up through storm sewers.

As administrators planned how to rescue flood-vulnerable books, records and other documents, Toby Baker, wife of President Kendall Baker, issued a plea on local radio for remaining students, faculty and staff to "save our university." The first of about 200 volunteers began arriving within minutes, setting off a daylong race to beat floodwaters.

South of DeMers Avenue, workers continued using heavy machinery to build a dike around United Hospital and the rest of Medical Park. Many hospital patients were evacuated Saturday, and all rehabilitation hospital patients and Valley Eldercare Center residents were moved to other regional locations.

With the city out of running water, and with its own staff reduced, United Hospital evacuated remaining critical care patients by helicopter and emergency vehicles to larger regional hospitals. The evacuations were done by 7 p.m.

Grand Forks' last open grocery store, Hugo's on 32nd Avenue South, closed late on this morning as water threatened the building and stressed shoppers made final purchases. Said employee Rick Hogan, "You always see these disasters somewhere else."

With the memory of downtown fire evacuations fresh, Grand Forks announced plans for a street-by-street search in evacuation zones. Mayor Pat Owens declared a 24-hour curfew in those zones. She noted that no deaths had been reported.

"What makes a community a place to live is not the buildings or anything else in that community," she said during a news conference that aired live on TV and radio. "It's the people the spirit and the faith that are in those people. . . . Walk away from those homes. Walk away from those buildings. We will rebuild, and we will be stronger, and we will be in it together." Her words were applauded.

Owens later noted, "I hope people will have a lot of patience."

A shelter at Grand Forks Air Force Base held about 3,000 people. Shelters at Thompson and Mayville, N.D., and Crookston continued to take in refugees or at least help provide basic items, such as clothes, food and toiletries. Some evacuees were parents separated from children, or separated spouses. Phones rang constantly as families searched for loved ones.

Flood fight preparations escalated downstream, especially at Pembina and Drayton, N.D., where Red River towns had been alarmed, even frightened, by images coming out of Greater Grand Forks. At Manvel, sandbag operations supported rural residents dealing with record floodwaters, while farmers battled to save livestock..

By 9 p.m. in Greater Grand Forks, the Red reached 53.9 feet about 26 feet above flood stage. And it was still rising.

The article includes information from Herald and wire service reports.
By April 20, the scope of the disaster in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks had become painfully clear. Grand Forks had become the scenes of some of the worst flooding ever to befall an American city, and the engorged Red River of the North had become the largest river by volume in all of North America.

On the UND campus, the reality had set in that flooding, and subsequent damage, was now unavoidable. Floodwaters were approaching too quickly, from too many directions, and there just wasn’t enough time or resources on hand to halt water from overtaking buildings. What could be done, however, was lessen the flood’s impact on campus.

To that end, President Kendell Baker quickly assembled a team on April 20 to come up with a list of facilities and collections that were either most threatened or most valuable to the university. The list this team came up with reflected the different roles of the university and included
  • The science journals, microfiche, and microfilm collections in the basement of the Chester Fritz Library
  • Holdings in the lower level of the Thormodsgard Law Library
  • Pieces in the University’s art collection at the Hughes Fine Arts Center
  • Theatre Arts’ collection of costumes the kept in the basement of the Burtness Theater
  • Library materials and Student Health service records in the lower level of O’Kelly Hall
  • A power transformer near the Hughes Fine Arts Center that had made UND one of the last places in Grand Forks still with electricity
  • Telecommunication equipment in the basement of Merrifield and Carnegie Halls
It was then up to the volunteers alluded to in the article above to make sure these “jewels” of the university could be protected as best as possible.

Elsewhere on campus, the situation the School of Medicine had been described as “gruesome,” with Larry Zitzow, Associate Director of Plant Services, recalling the building being “filled to three and one-half feet with sewage. With sewage, yep. The smell was unbelievable! It was so brand new, everything in there, all the instrumentation and lab equipment. It was just something you couldn’t believe. Then, with the different levels in there, some places were even deeper. It was something else!”

Most buildings on campus were completely devoid of people by this point, but there were a few exceptions. One was in the university’s science buildings, where a handful of people (often instructors or UND Plant Services personnel) volunteered to baby-sit electrical generators providing electricity to crucial experiments, research projects, and laboratory animals. The university was committed to saving as much of this irreplaceable work as possible.

Another place where people could be found was on the far western side of campus, the part not at threat of going underwater. All administrative offices had been moved to the Plant Services Building, which, upon addition of mattresses on the second floor and porta-potties outside, was also transformed into a home for many of the administrators still there. Others would find temporary lodging 7 miles to the south in the Thompson Public School.

Even though there was still a present threat of flooding, UND officials started to take a look beyond the flood by starting twice-daily meetings on April 20 that would assess plans for the future. UND, like much of Grand Forks, was already beginning to look down the arduous path of flood recovery.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.

Videos related to this entry:
KSTP-TV tags along with U.S. Air Force Personnel as they go through the flooded streets of Grand Forks looking for people who haven't heeded the orders to evacuate

WCCO-TV tags along with the U.S. Coast Guard as its personnel rescue a man from flooded Grand Forks

With the foresight that this flood was going to have an enormous impact on the Red River Valley, I pushed the record button on my VCR on the evening of April 20, 1997 to capture the 10 o'clock KARE 11 news. Here's the first 8 or so minutes of my recording.

Here's another 6 or so minutes of the KARE 11 10 o'clock news from April 20, 1997

Pictures related to this entry:

Sources used in writing this entry:
Beyond the Flood. Videocassette. Minnesota Broadcasters Association, 1997.

Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: When It Couldn't Get Any Worse...

This Grand Forks Herald article recalling the events of April 19, 1997 was put together by staff writer Mike Brue.

Grand Forks and East Grand Forks in the early morning dark were on the verge of flood defeat to the Red and Red Lake rivers.

At a Grand Forks news conference, with North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer at her side, a weary [Grand Forks] Mayor Pat Owens announced further evacuations in the eastern part of the city and urged the city's remaining residents to leave.

At his own flooding home on James Avenue in East Grand Forks, a tired Mayor Lynn Stauss realized his city's defeat between midnight and 1 a.m. as he listened to one sandbagger after another describe lost flood battles. "They were in every part of town," Stauss recalled later on this day. "They all seemed to lose it at the same time."

Then the Kennedy Memorial Bridge [on U.S. Highway 2], the bridge that leaders in both cities vowed to do everything possible to keep open, was closed to traffic.

The Red had passed 52 feet. Determined pockets of homes and neighborhoods fought the rivers into the overnight, but the organized volunteer efforts by the cities ended.

By about 1 a.m., Valley Golf Course and the Griggs Park and Sherlock Park neighborhoods in East Grand Forks were taking water as dikes failed. Murky brown water rose into the second stories of some homes and spread into other East Grand Forks neighborhoods, ultimately claiming downtown about 4 a.m.

East Grand Forks' Point neighborhood, flooding since Friday afternoon, was isolated, with the Murray Bridge closed and earthen dikes or floodwaters blocking other routes out.

In Grand Forks, the Red's strong flood currents continued to pass through the Lincoln Drive neighborhood. That area, surrounded on three sides by dikes, already had filled like a basin up to the river's flood level and homes' roofs.

For several miles south, flooding claimed homes in other low-lying neighborhoods.

From the north, Red River backwater continued to worsen flooding on the English Coulee.

Floodwaters backed up through storm sewers, sometimes bursting open sewer caps, steadily moved westward through the eastern part of Grand Forks….Water overwhelmed streets, yards, vehicles, basements and sometimes first floors. Even the city's Emergency Operations Center in the police building downtown was forced out to UND.

Water moved into the heart of downtown, driving out mailroom and pressroom employees of the Grand Forks Herald shortly before 2:30 a.m. About 90 minutes later, rescuers evacuated senior residents through floodwater and floating lobby furniture from the nearby Ryan House.

By dawn, downtown had a layer of floodwater about 4 feet deep.

In many neighborhoods, startled residents awoke to find their homes or apartments surrounded by floodwater. By noon, floodwater reached almost all of East Grand Forks, and roughly half of Grand Forks, where mandatory evacuation areas now covered about three-quarters of the city.

Military and civilian rescuers used helicopters, boats and trucks to evacuate about 3,000 residents stuck on the Point. In both cities, Guard vehicles and boats brought people to dry drop-off sites, where they were taken by bus to shelters in Grand Forks Air Force Base and Crookston, which had just battled back Red Lake River floodwaters.

"We're all saying, 'How did we get spared in this?'" said Kathy Umlauf, a Crookston city employee helping out the evacuation effort. "We think we've been spared to help." More than 4,000 East Grand Forks evacuees checked through Crookston by late night; at one point, about 800 planned to stay.

"I don't ever want to go back there," said Roger LeBlanc, East Grand Forks, after he, his 5-year-old daughter and his girlfriend evacuated their home. "You work that long and hard, and then you lose it all." He turned away to wipe away a tear.

In late morning, UND President Kendall Baker announced that the remainder of spring semester was canceled. As if waiting for that cue, hundreds of students left dorms and other housing within minutes, getting in vehicles and joining lines of cars leaving Grand Forks.

"I'm done, graduated just like that," said Chris Borgan, a UND senior, as he filled his tank at a bustling convenience store to leave town.

Workers built a dike around the Medical Park complex in Grand Forks, while helicopters evacuated patients. Across Columbia Road, evacuees nearly emptied the shelves at Hugo's supermarket. "We had a line, honest to God, that wrapped around the store," said store manager Dave Borseth.

In the late afternoon, people throughout Grand Forks and East Grand Forks began to notice dark smoke coming from downtown. A new drama unfolded.

About 4:15 p.m., smoke was reported coming from downtown's pink brick Security Building on the 100 block of North Third Street. The smoke shortly turned into flames. And throughout downtown, some people remained in second-floor apartments, defying the city's evacuation order.

City firefighters' efforts to stem the fire were thwarted by floodwaters, now more than 4 feet deep. It stalled their diesel engine pumper and slowed other trucks trying to reach the scene. To fill hoses, firefighters had to pump floodwaters.

Firefighters' struggles to make any headway were distracted by the need to hasten evacuations. They worked with the National Guard and others to get people to safety.

"The firemen pounded on the door and were telling me to leave," said Rex Sorgatz, a UND student who planned to wait out the flood in his apartment at 111 N. Third St. Outside, Sorgatz saw the Security Building fire as he was hustled to a boat.

Once evacuations finished, a U.S. Forest Service plane began its drops of bright-red chemical retardant on the fire. Helicopters dipped large buckets into the flooded Red, then returned to drop water on the fire, spreading northward on the 100 block of North Third Street.

"Everything on that in trouble," Deputy Fire Chief Pete O'Neill said.

The fire eventually leapfrogged toward DeMers Avenue to buildings on several other blocks.

In East Grand Forks, where there was no power, Stauss ordered remaining city residents to evacuate. By 7 p.m., he said, about 90 percent had. Another city official said later that about 200 people refused to leave.

"I'm the first mayor to lose a town, that's how devastating it is," Stauss said in response to one question. But his city's police station and water treatment plant remained successfully protected by a last-minute sandbagging effort.

By 8 p.m., flooding covered about three-quarters of Grand Forks. The city was "piecemealing" neighborhood evacuation orders, police said, because they didn't want to overrun the region's shelters.

As midnight approached, the Red had reached just beyond 53 feet. Against block upon block of dark, silent neighborhoods, the downtown sky glowed.

The article includes material from Herald and wire reports.

April 19, 1997 became the darkest day in the history of Grand Forks and arguably the entire state of North Dakota. Incomprehensible devastation could be seen throughout the entire city of East Grand Forks and over half of Grand Forks. The biggest blow, however, came in the afternoon when fire broke out in Grand Forks’ proud downtown. It’s the pictures of the burning downtown buildings surrounded by 4 to 6 feet deep floodwaters that catapulted the flood of 1997 to national attention, and it’s also what would come to represent the lowest low of the flood. If there’s just one thing that earned the Grand Forks Herald its Pulitzer Prize following the flood of 1997, it’s the pictures that its photographers took of the fires. The same fires that were tragically destroying the Herald’s very own building that housed over a hundred years of archives and records.

The events unfolding in Grand Forks were the biggest news of April 19, even though residents in Fargo were still battling floodwaters there. Still, the situation was beginning to look better, as city officials were able to build the emergency dike to the south of town. In addition, officials in Cass County were able to alleviate some of the threat from overland flooding by tearing out a large chuck of County Road 81 south of the city and effectively creating a channel for the waters to flow through.

As stated earlier, UND called off classes for the remainder of the spring semester on this day and urged all students to evacuate immediately. As to how final grades would be assigned for the spring semester, students could either take the grade they had received up to April 19 or take an “incomplete.”

The need to get all faculty, staff, and students out of Grand Forks took precedence over trying to save any threatened buildings. As a result, the ongoing effort to save Smith Hall from going underwater was ended in the early morning hours. The decision to leave the dike was tremendously difficult, with the director of Plant Services, LeRoy Sondrol, recalling, “I think that was maybe the lowest time…that I went through. When you knew people wanted to keep going, and you knew no matter how hard you tried that you were going to lose it. To tell people to retreat from the dikes when they wanted to keep going. You just literally had to go face-to-face with people and say, ‘This is it. We’ve got to quit.’”

The dike that so many had works weeks on gave way later during the day, sending water rushing into the cafeteria and laundry rooms that occupied the basement of Smith Hall.

Elsewhere on campus, the English Coulee had risen higher than expected, and floodwater was coming in from the north, south, and east. Other problems were also cropping up. The sewer system in Grand Forks was now completely filled with rushing floodwater, meaning that it was apt to back up in buildings left dry from the outside. In other words, buildings could begin flooding from the inside. Such a thing happened in the UND Medical School; by day’s end, floodwater and raw sewage had filled up the basement.

The same scene also played out in the tunnel between Selke Hall and Wilkerson Hall. UND officials at one point tried to build a sandbag dike inside the tunnel, but it was no use. The lower level of Wilkerson Hall by days end had also gone underwater.

The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) and the steam plant were two other buildings that succumbed to flooding on this day.

Because all buildings with basements were now in danger of getting flooded, UND officials had to work frantically to assess how they could salvage the most in the shortest amount of time. It had now become a foregone conclusion that it would be impossible to halt flooding on campus.

One of the first things protected was the university’s mainframe computer in the basement of Upson II. The university’s Technical Support Specialist, along with officials from IBM, completely powered everything down and transported the most critical and expensive equipment to the third floor of Upson II. Other components were later taken to Fargo.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.

Videos related to this entry:
Devestation in Grand Forks. WCCO-TV's Don Shelby narrates this report, one of the most memorable during the worst of the flood.

More destruction abounded in East Grand Forks

"The beginning of the end in Grand Forks." A report chronicling the time during the fire in downtown Grand Forks.

Pictures related to this entry:

Sources used in writing this entry:
Beyond the Flood. Videocassette. Minnesota Broadcasters Association, 1997.

Floodwatch '97. Videocassette. WDAY Television News, 1997.

Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Staff of the [Fargo] Forum, comp. Fighting Back: the Blizzards and Flood in the Red River Valley, 1996-97. Fargo, ND: Forum Communications Company, 1997.

Staff of the Grand Forks Herald and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, comp. Come Hell and High Water: the Incredible Story of the 1997 Red River Flood. Grand Forks, ND: Grand Forks Herald, 1997.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: The Day Flooding Became Unstopable

This Grand Forks Herald article recalling the events of April 18, 1997 was put together by staff writer Mike Brue.

As [April 18] began, the Red River flood climbed past 51 feet high - more than 2 feet beyond 1979's flood of 20th-century record. Its rise showed little sign of slowing. The National Weather Service, which adjusted crest forecasts upward all week, revised it again by late morning: 53 feet, either late on this day or [April 19].

The week started with Grand Forks and East Grand Forks having built their dikes up to about 52 feet, 3 feet above the estimated 49-foot crest. When the estimates kept moving up, the communities tried to keep distance between the river and dike tops. They couldn't.

On this morning, Grand Forks City Engineer Ken Vein warned residents that overland flooding could affect virtually all of the city if dikes failed.

Hours earlier, boils were discovered in the Lincoln dikes. Soon, Mayor Pat Owens ordered evacuation of the low-lying Lincoln neighborhood, setting off the first of multiple siren wails heard in the two cities this day. The sun had not yet risen.

A morning dike breach near Belmont Road and Lincoln Drive allowed floodwaters to roll into the Lincoln neighborhood from the southwest. Then, after spotters reported a Lincoln dike break around 2 p.m., the rising Red poured in waterfall fashion over a lengthy stretch of dike near Lanark Avenue. By 4 p.m., Lincoln floodwaters were the same height as the river. The damage: about 300 homes, some to the roofs.

In East Grand Forks, sirens sounded minutes after noon as people suddenly rushed from homes and yards along Folson Court. Floodwaters breaking through dikes damaged about two dozen homes. A new dike effort prevented further damage.

But about 3:30 p.m., an East Grand Forks dike broke southeast of the Louis Murray Bridge over the Red Lake River. About 9 feet of floodwater surged through, rocking the bridge and slowly overtaking the Point neighborhood. Sirens followed about 4:20 p.m., as the city called for evacuations from the Point and downtown. The bridge closed to all but emergency vehicles.

“Make up your mind,” Mayor Lynn Stauss told people living south of Crestwood School. “For your own safety, I have to say you should leave tonight.”

Point residents quickly were surrounded; an earthen dike blocked Bygland Road, and Red floodwaters backed up into the Hartsville Coulee south of town claimed the last exit. Suddenly, helicopters and high-riding emergency vehicles were the only ways out.

Flood fights continued into the night. About 11 p.m., a dike north of the Kennedy Bridge on U.S. Highway 2 gave way, allowing water to pour into the near-empty Sherlock Park neighborhood of East Grand Forks.

In Grand Forks, [Mayor Pat] Owens also had ordered early morning evacuations of the Riverside and Central neighborhoods. More than 100 residents of Valley Memorial Home-Almonte were moved to Valley Eldercare, United Hospital and Kelly Elementary School.

People moved out of the low-lying Belmont Road neighborhood between 13th and 17th avenues south. Long sandbag volunteer lines were seen at several locations, including the bike path on North Third Street. Neighborhood dike work continued at Belmont Coulee, where water was backing up from the Red; at Rolling Hills Circle and at many other locations.

Some homeowners in evacuated areas used city-issued passes to return, get some more belongings and look at a life they might be leaving behind. “This might be it,” Renae Arends said after returning to her home. “I might not have a house to come back to.”

The English Coulee was flooding into the Boyd Drive and Sixth Avenue North areas by afternoon. The Red backed into the coulee from the north, a predicament not prevented by the new coulee flood diversion west of town.

Many reporters covering the flood for national media outlets quickly turned Grand Forks' [Mayor Pat] Owens into the primary face and voice of the flood fight. Some of the interviews she gave aired live. “Say a lot of prayers for us,” Owens told a Canadian reporter in late morning.

After 5 p.m., more Grand Forks sirens. The Riverside dike was leaking and possibly ready to give way. A secondary dike was built as a secondary line of defense. Another secondary dike was built on Belmont Road; nearby, the city urged residents of Olson Drive, Elmwood Drive and 27th Avenue South to spend the night elsewhere because of dike dangers.

At 8 p.m., the weather service revised the crest again: 54 feet, sometime Saturday night. Before 9 p.m., the Central Park neighborhood and some south downtown businesses were told to evacuate as floodwaters pushed up into the streets through storm sewers.
By 10 p.m, some areas south of downtown's railroad tracks were too flooded to leave by vehicle, prompting some evacuations in a city dump truck and National Guard humvees. The city's Emergency Operations Center moved from the water-threatened police building to UND.

More than 3,000 people - perhaps a lot more - already had evacuated in Grand Forks alone, officials estimated. Some stayed at shelters established in the new National Guard Armory and Red River High School; Grand Forks Air Force Base awaited more evacuees.

“Absolutely do not sleep in your basements anywhere in Grand Forks tonight,” Emergency Operations director Jim Campbell cautioned remaining residents.

As midnight neared, the Red approached 53 feet [and a dike in East Grand Forks near the Kennedy Bridge gave way, severing the last link between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and the only way out for residents living in the Sherlock Park neighborhood of East Grand Forks.]

The article includes material from Herald and wire service reports.

Chaos abounded on April 18, and not just in the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area. In Fargo, city officials saw what was going on 70 miles to the north in Grand Forks and ordered an emergency dike be put together on the south side of town. The consequence of not building the dike, Fargo’s mayor warned, would be that the entire city of Fargo could go under water.

Nevertheless, some parts of the Fargo/Moorhead area were already under water. After the dike broke in the Oak Grove neighborhood in east Fargo the day before, virtually all residents in that area had left. The situation was only slightly better in the Oak Port Township north of Moorhead, as some houses there were still dry.

At UND on April 18, classes were once again canceled, with all faculty, staff, and students asked to come to the Memorial Union to volunteer in the desperate attempt to save whatever homes and buildings could in parts of Grand Forks quickly going under water. Only three people were on hand in the university’s administrative building, Twamley Hall; everyone else left to volunteer or had been evacuated from their homes.

Students were on hand to help throughout the day in Grand Forks. In the book put out by UND after the flood, one student recalled, “We were sandbagging a family’s home. The dike was already four feet high. We were standing on crates so we were out of the water. Unfortunately, the water was rising as fast as we were passing bags. We worked for two hours when, all of a sudden, the sirens went off and the National Guard came. Everyone ignored the Guardsmen and continued to work for a while, but soon we realized we had lost….As I walked down the neighborhood, I watched people stand on their decks looking at their homes and neighbors. When I turned around, the house we had tried to save was slowly filling up with water. I started to cry…It was like you had become family in the time you worked to save someone’s home.”

By evening, the most threatened structure on the UND campus was Smith Hall. Students – along with President of the university, Kendall Baker – were on the western, coulee, side of the building frantically raising the clay and sandbag dike. Nobody knew how long, or even if, the dike would protect the entire basement of the residence hall from becoming submerged.

As the night wore on, President Baker received a call that would profoundly affect the university. At the other end was UND Plant Services notifying him that the Grand Forks water plant was in danger of going down. With that news, there was little alternative but to close the university for the remainder of the spring semester. A public announcement of that grave reality would be made the following morning.

April 19 would go down as being the darkest day in Grand Forks’ history, and really the history of the entire state of North Dakota. Check back tomorrow for an entry pertaining to this catastrophic day.

Links related to this entry:
Click here to read an account of what it was like to try to save Smith Hall during the evening of April 18 as well as of the phone call that would later shut down the university for the rest of the semester (PDF).

Pictures related to this entry:

Videos related to this entry:
Seeing the devastating flooding taking place 70 miles to the north in Grand Forks, ND, officials in Fargo, ND announced dramatic plans on April 18, 1997 to quickly build a dike to protect the entire city from being inundated.

Residents around the Fargo, ND/Moorhead, MN area on April 18 continued to battle the floodwater coming close to their homes. After a lot of hard work, many still lost the battle.

Panic and confusion set in as the floodwaters spread through Grand Forks

Sources used in writing this entry:
Beyond the Flood. Videocassette. Minnesota Broadcasters Association, 1997.

Floodwatch '97. Videocassette. WDAY Television News, 1997.

Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Labels: , , , ,

Previous Posts

Four Years Have Passed
Winter of 2007-08 Musings
7th Annual Top 10 Super Bowl Commercials
Another Birthday
A Beltated Update
2007 Vacation: Day 10 Summary
2007 Vacation: Day 9 Summary
2007 Vacation: Day 8 Summary
2007 Vacation: Day 7 Summary
2007 Vacation: Day 6 Summary


March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
November 2007
December 2007
February 2008
March 2008
March 2012

Current Weather

Click for Brainerd, Minnesota Forecast Click for Grand Forks, North Dakota Forecast

Weather Station


Google Search



Minnesota Counties

Minnesota Counties I've Visited

North Dakota Counties

North Dakota Counties I've Visited


Subscribe to Mitch's Blog 

Through RSS
Click here to subscribe to Mitch's Blog through RSS!
Add to My 

Add to Google

Free Image Hosting at

Mitch's Blog Copyright 2001-2012 Mitch Wahlsten -- All Rights Reserved
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of Mitch Wahlsten and the participants
Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001