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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.

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Flood of '97 Series: Desperation on the Dikes
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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001