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Monday, April 16, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: The Arrival of "The Flood of the Century"

In Grand Forks, April 16, 1997 would go down in history as the day that the flood of 1997 became the “flood of the century.” The Red River in East Grand Forks started the day at 47.10 feet and ended it at 48.98 feet, the second-highest level in recorded history, and within close range of the record highest 50.20 foot mark of a century earlier in 1897.

Because of the still rapid ascent of the water in the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area, it was beginning to appear more and more likely that this 50.20 foot level would be surpassed. After leaving the crest prediction stand at 49 feet for two months, and then raising it one foot the day before, the National Weather Service raised the crest prediction once more on April 16 by increasing it to 50.5 feet.

The increased prediction certainly was not good news. However, it didn’t come as that big of a shock either, as residents in both cities had been preparing for weeks for a crest of around 52 feet. In actuality, residents were pretty optimistic at daybreak on April 16 and thought that the exhausting fight to save their homes and cities was going pretty well.

City officials thought otherwise. In both East Grand Forks and Grand Forks, evacuation plans were being thoroughly reviewed, but no mandatory evacuation orders were given. Still, by the evening hours, Grand Forks city officials began seriously discussing the possibility of having to evacuate some residents of low-laying areas within the city.

One of these particularly vulnerable spots was the Lincoln Park neighborhood adjacent to the Red River in the east end of Grand Forks (see map below). There, houses stood precariously close to the river and at a lower elevation than the surroundings. With the water continuing to rise, it was becoming ever clearer that this area might be in trouble. As a precaution, Grand Forks’ mayor Pat Owens told people living in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the evening of the 16th that they should seriously consider moving out of their homes within the next 24 hours in case a tragedy struck. Residents of the area responded with mixed emotions, but many wanted to stay up until the wee hours of the morning – or until sunrise – continuing to build and patrol the sandbagged dikes that were still sparing them from disaster.

Outside of Grand Forks on the 16th, flooding conditions in the Fargo/Moorhead area continued to be grim. As it had been for days, water was still threatening the Oakport Township north of Moorhead and the Oak Grove neighborhood next to the river in the east end of Fargo. By the end of April 16, the Red River was at 39 feet in Fargo/Moorhead, a mere one-tenth of a foot shy of the all-time record set in 1897.

Flooding was beginning to grip the communities north of Grand Forks. Interstate 29 was shut down between Grand Forks and the Grafton exit, adding 37 miles to the already 80 miles between Grand Forks and Fargo that the road had been barricaded. Officials in Walsh County, ND – north of Grand Forks – urged people living east of the interstate and west of the Red River to evacuate by daybreak.

At UND, anybody who could volunteer with sandbagging within the community was strongly advised to do so. To that end, President Kendall Baker called off class on both April 16 and 17. What nobody knew at that time, though, was that the semester was about to come to an abrupt end…

Check back tomorrow evening for the latest entry in this series.

Pictures related to this entry:

An overview of the Lincoln Park Neighborhood in Grand Forks - this neighborhood will be mentioned often in the coming days

Sources used in writing this entry:
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.

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Flood of '97 Series: The River Closes In
Flood of '97 Series: "Dreaming of Sandbags"
Flood of '97 Series: "Hard-Hearted Hannah"
Flood of '97 Series: The Cruel Winter of 1996-97
Flood of '97 Series: Introduction
6th Annual Top 10 Super Bowl Commercials
Weather and Climate
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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001