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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.

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Previous Posts

Flood of '97 Series: "Turning the Corner"
Flood of '97 Series: President Clinton Visits
Flood of '97 Series: The Red Finally Crests in Gra...
Flood of '97 Series: The Grand Cities Empty Out
Flood of '97 Series: When It Couldn't Get Any Wors...
Flood of '97 Series: The Day Flooding Became Unsto...
Flood of '97 Series: Desperation on the Dikes
Flood of '97 Series: The Arrival of "The Flood of ...
Flood of '97 Series: The River Closes In
Flood of '97 Series: "Dreaming of Sandbags"


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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001