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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.

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Previous Posts

Flood of '97 Series: An Angel gives a Gift
Flood of '97 Series: Cleanup Begins
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 ...


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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001