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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: President Clinton Visits

This Grand Forks Herald article recalling the events of April 22, 1997 was put together by staff writer Mike Brue.

On the day a U.S. president came to Greater Grand Forks, the Red River's record flood crest did, too.

The path to disaster was ending.

Bill Clinton's visit brought more national and international attention to the series of disasters that pummeled Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and the Red River valley.

The river's historic peak at the official downtown gauge was 54.35 feet, more than 26 feet above flood stage and about 5 feet higher than 1979's record. Because floodwaters were expected to hover near crest levels for several days, few people paid close attention to the exact river level.

The flooding behemoth already spoke devastating volumes, and continued to do so loud enough to prompt the presidential visit.

Air Force One brought Bill Clinton to Grand Forks Air Force Base, where he and other federal disaster officials would tour the great Flood of 1997 firsthand, offer encouragement and bring news about expanded disaster assistance.

"You bring us hope," added Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens, showing some emotion.

Shortly after his arrival, Clinton and other officials boarded helicopters to get a better look at the disaster. From the air, they saw virtually all of East Grand Forks and roughly three-quarters of Grand Forks in or under water. They flew over the remains of 11 downtown buildings damaged or destroyed in a weekend fire. They viewed a massive landscape of water, spread miles wide and stretched far in to the north and south horizons.

They looked, and they said little.
Back in an Air Force base 3-Bay Hanger, standing before about 3,000 people, many of them flood evacuees, Clinton took center stage, a group of federal, North Dakota, Minnesota and Air Force dignitaries and an enormous American flag behind him.

Among the dignitaries: East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss, wearing a jacket with big "USA" letters, and Owens "wearing the heart and soul of my community," she told the president.

"Welcome to Water World Mr. President," a sign said.

A large spotlight overhead fizzled, then popped loudly. People flinched. Pause. Clinton, looking up, pointed to the source of the commotion.

"Well," he said, "we've had a fire, a flood, a blizzard I think we can handle this."

Laughter. Relief.

Clinton talked about TV images of sandbagging during a blizzard, about having never seen a series of disasters hit one area like this. "You don't have to be ashamed if you're heartbroken," he said.

He told of authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse 100 percent of local governments' flood expenses, rather than the usual 75 percent. He said he was asking Congress for $448 million in Midwest disaster relief, $200 million more than first requested.

The president then alluded to the faith and spirit of the region's people: "Water cannot wash that away, fire cannot burn that away, and a blizzard cannot freeze that away," he said.

By mid-afternoon, the president was gone.

From the air, Clinton could not see the details in two cities of a past life stopped in time by high water.

"Sandbaggers needed," a sign read. "Please report to the Civic Center."

A billboard advertising the Shrine Circus April 25-27 in Grand Forks. Dogs barking inside homes. The glow from a TV screen visible through a window.

River currents ignored the reds, yellows and greens of working traffic signals. Basketball hoops peaked above floodwaters.

"It's like the Twilight Zone," said Cheryl Westfall, a police 911 supervisor, as she passed through a north side neighborhood with other police personnel.

Downtown, every street was Canal Street. A wrecking ball occasionally knocked down the remains of burned buildings. Boats and huge National Guard trucks provided traffic and transportation.

A rubber raft outside the County Courthouse was the only sign of a document rescue inside. Nearby, with help from the National Guard, local law enforcement revisited the flooded police department building. Police retrieved supplies and computer equipment to bring back to the U.S. Army Reserve Center west of town, which served as a temporary police station.

"It's Vietnam all over again," said Mike Flannery, a war veteran-turned-police officer. "Hueys in the air. You eat what you can when you can. . . .Camouflage all over."

Evacuations continued in areas that were supposed to have been cleared. A U.S. Coast Guard boat came to a Sixth Avenue North home, where a white towel hung from the door. "I just decided it was no use," said the resident, holed up for three days with his bird and fish. "I thought I could wait it out. I couldn't."

Still, no reports of lives lost to flooding in the two cities.

Evacuees were scattered across communities from Devils Lake to Duluth, from Minneapolis to Minot, from Watford City, N.D., to Winnipeg.

One example: Larimore, N.D., pop. 1,500, suddenly about 2,000 people larger, with about 100 Grand Forks students already enrolled at school and about 30 residents of Grand Forks' Tufte Manor residing in the school gym.

At Mayville, N.D., about 900 Grand Forks evacuees were welcomed guests. "You visit people. You go for walks. When you see and talk to all of the people here from Grand Forks, you still feel like a part of Grand Forks," evacuee Darryl Tunseth said. "But (the flood) is always in the back of your mind. You're always in limbo, wondering what's going on."

Mayville State University canceled the rest of spring classes on this day; its dormitories helped shelter evacuees. The college's latest newsletter, "The High Ground News," offered pertinent information, including helpful phone numbers and things to do.

"We joined together as a community to fight the flood," said Rick Cornell, another Grand Forks evacuee at Mayville. "I hope we do the same to rebuild."

The Flood of '97 was far from over. Downstream cities and towns and surrounding rural residents still faced flood battles. Many people upstream still dealt with high water, or at least faced what was gained and lost.

But for Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, on a day a president visited and the Red quit rising, amid widespread shock, heartbreaking loss and historic evacuation, the earliest signs of recovery were showing.
Although he only stayed a short while, President Clinton’s stop in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks proved to be just the sort of thing that the cities needed to lift their spirits. Many residents felt comforted to know that people far away in Washington D.C. were willing to look after the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

At UND on April 22, the general consensus was that the university was “holding its own.” At the 9 AM flood recovery meeting, President Kendell Baker continued to outline the steps that would be taken to build the “virtual university” that would be in place until all UND departments could be operating as normal. The plans called for this “virtual university” to be fully operational by April 28.

Talk also began to center around how UND could help in recovery efforts of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. It was generally agreed that the university’s greatest asset would probably be its residence halls; they could turned into temporary housing for flood victims. With this in mind, a task force was created to develop plans to get the halls opened as soon as possible. Although a few had taken in water in their basements, the main problem at first was the fact that students had left most of their personal belongings in their rooms after the call went out to evacuate. UND would need to get the residence halls open as quickly as possible in order for students to come back and retrieve their possessions.

Elsewhere on campus, Plant Services officials began going into buildings to assess damage. With a volunteer cameraman from the UND television center, LeRoy Sondrol, head of Plant Services, led a small group into three heavily damaged buildings – the medical school, Smith Hall, and the USDA Nutrition Research Center. Although the latter building is operated and maintained by the USDA, Denise Schaefer, the animal caretaker at the center, asked to see the inside of the building. So the group went inside.

What they found was startling. There was about a foot and a half of water covering the ground floor, and electricity was still on in the entire building. What’s more, there was smoke coming from the mechanical/boiler room. The early makings of an electrical fire, like the kind that eventually bought down 11 buildings in downtown Grand Forks 3 days earlier were apparent. In desperation, the group quickly left the building, and Sondrol got on a cell phone to summon the fire department and get NSP (now Xcel Energy) to turn off the power right away. Luckily, the power was cut in time. However, had nobody gone in to inspect the building, a very damaging fire easily could have occurred.

More inspections during the day revealed even more damage. The lower levels of the Memorial Union, Swanson Hall (a residence hall), and Wilkerson Hall all were completely filled with water. Lesser amounts of water, in the 1-2 foot range, could be found in the basements of Montgomery, Walsh, Squires, Bek, Leonard, Robertson-Sayre, and Corwin-Larimore Halls as well as the Era Bell Thompson and Native American Centers.

Good news could be found on campus, however. University officials residing in their new “homes” at the Plant Services building were treated to a hot lunch of scalloped potatoes and ham. They had also received one portable kitchen, with two more on the way. Even so, it was hard for many of the employees to not know how their own houses within the community had fared. The book published by UND after the flood describes how, at the end of a long day’s work, many would get on the phone and dial up their home phone numbers. If the call went through, the phone lines in the house had stayed dry. A busy signal, on the other hand, meant that water was in the house and the phone lines had been compromised.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.

Links related to this entry:
Click here to read a transcript of President Clinton's speech.

Videos related to this entry:
President Clinton visits Grand Forks and East Grand Forks

A report on the Grand Forks Herald during the flood. Despite losing its building first to floodwaters and then to fire, the newspaper never missed an issue. Free copies were delivered daily to flood victims throughout the area so that they could get flood-related news from a local perspective.

This is the video shot on the UND campus on April 22. As stated in the beginning, the original intent of this video was to get emergency relief funding from the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education.

The first 9 or so minutes of the KARE 11 10 o'clock news from April 22, 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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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001