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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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


Excellent job with your Flood of '97 Series. Top notch, valuable information and history!

Chris Paulhamus

Sat Apr 21, 06:21:00 PM CDT  

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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
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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


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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001