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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: The Red Finally Crests in Grand Forks

This Grand Forks Herald article recalling the events of April 21, 1997 was put together by staff writer Mike Brue.

It was a Monday, the start of the work week, 10 years ago today.

Business, though, was anything but usual in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, epicenter of the dramatic Red River Valley flood and fire, and the site of what some authorities called an urban disaster displacement on a scale then unmatched in American history.

Cranes moved into flooded downtown Grand Forks to knock some walls down on buildings damaged by the dramatic weekend fire. “It doesn't seem real,” Deputy Fire Chief Pete O'Neill told reporters. “You want to wake up from some dream.”

Finally, the Red River seemed about to crest. That, in turn, slowed the spread of floodwater across the nearly level urban landscape. It reached 54.11 feet, more than 5 feet above the 1979 record crest.

Again on this day, flood tours gave emergency officials, government leaders and news media first-hand looks at the damage in mandatory evacuation areas. As much as several dozen feet deep in places, floodwaters from the Red and Red Lake rivers spread a quilt of raw sewage, fuel and debris for several miles beyond the dikes that failed to contain it. Homes, garages, businesses, vehicles and signs stood in water, or sometimes under it.

“You'll probably hit (cars) before you see them,” DNR conservation officer Tom Campbell said during a boat ride Sunday over some East Grand Forks' streets.

Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota's 7th District was one of the boat passengers who ducked under telephone and power lines en route to sights of homes tipped off their foundations. “I went to Breckenridge (Saturday), and I thought that was bad,” he said. “But this is unbelievable.”

On this Monday, Peterson added, “The normal disaster relief is not going to work.”

Greater Grand Forks leaders learned that President Bill Clinton would come to Grand Forks Air Force Base on Tuesday to hear their concerns and tour the area in a helicopter. In Washington, Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt and other White House officials joined members of Congress to discuss Red River Valley federal aid needs.

Increasingly, flood victims sought out FEMA's toll-free number to register for disaster assistance. But few calls came from Greater Grand Forks proper, though U S West workers so far successfully kept their water-surrounded downtown service center - and the area's dial tone, 911 and other government circuits - in working order.

About 85 percent of Grand Forks' population of 52,000 had evacuated, either by mandate or voluntarily. Only about 250 of East Grand Forks' nearly 9,000 residents remained.

“What I'm afraid of,” said the Rev. William Sherman of Grand Forks' flooded St. Michael's Catholic Church, “is that once reality sets in, there will be anguish and anxiety.”

On this day, Greater Grand Forks' public schools and the East Side's parochial Sacred Heart School canceled the remainder of their school years for teachers, staff and some 12,000 displaced students. Officials said all but one of the schools within the two city limits had some type of flood damage.

Grand Forks County Commissioners met in Larimore, about 30 miles west of Grand Forks, to begin moving the base for county services, primarily into the town's Masonic Temple.

A few businesses remained open on the flood-free edges of Greater Grand Forks, including a couple of hotels, the temporary quarters for officials from two cities and many emergency personnel.

“There's nothing to come back to now,” said East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss, who helped set up a temporary City Hall at the Comfort Inn on U.S. Highway 2. “We have to, basically, rebuild our community.”

The National Guard and other agencies still fought floodwaters at the East Side's water treatment plant, police station, cellular communications tower and other essential areas.

In west Grand Forks, at a camouflaged tanker parked near the Ramada Inn, remaining residents filled jugs with fresh water from 2,000-gallon tanks, dubbed “water buffaloes.” The tanks contained water from the Turtle River and area reservoirs, purified for three hours with heavy chlorination by the Guard's reverse-osmosis water purification unit.

On Grand Forks' southwest side, 10 postal workers - about 75 fewer than normal - sorted mail for shipment to northeast North Dakota post offices. Walk-up mail service was planned to start within a day or two at Grand Forks Air Force Base, home to more than 3,000 evacuees, and Crookston, where more than 4,000 evacuees either registered or sought shelter. “We're not accepting any change of address for evacuees yet,” a Fargo postal official said.

Evacuees had spread to shelters set up by communities throughout the region, or they accepted one of thousands of offers from complete strangers who opened up their homes out of compassion and a feeling of helplessness.

Fargo and Moorhead was a detour-obstructed destination for thousands, despite those cities' own recent fierce flood battles. “We got out with very little. Not even a suitcase,” said Jean Haus, who left their 24th Avenue South home near the river. She and her daughter, Judy, went to the Fargo Target to take advantage of a 20-percent discount for evacuees.

New elevated crest forecasts on this day added to the stress of residents in downstream Red River towns Pembina and Drayton, N.D., and nearby rural residents north of Greater Grand Forks. The National Weather Service's revisions for crests, expected within two to four days, leapfrogged one or more feet over the cities' urgent dike preparations.

But closer to Grand Forks, Oslo, Minn.,'s 31-year-old clay ring dike was holding. Floodwaters prevented virtually all but National Guard travel in and out of town, but farmer/volunteer firefighter Orin Knutson and farmhand Riley Farder brought two crates of mail from the Alvarado, Minn., post office, one day after hauling in a 10-day supply of groceries.

Said Gary Durand, head of Marshall County's emergency services: “They're like a sovereign nation or something.”
Most activity at UND on April 21 began to center around flood recovery efforts. At one of the twice-daily staff meetings, plans were drawn up to start a phone bank that UND students (and their parents), staff, faculty could call into and receive answers to any questions they might have. Additionally, the university was committed to using the latest in technology to create a “virtual university” that would be capable to performing the university’s core functions until it could operate as normal. President Kendell Baker called on employees temporarily moved to the Plant Services building to create a “University of the 21st Century.”

There remained some serious flooding problems on campus on April 21, though. Floodwaters were out of control inside the miles and miles of underground steam, water, and telecommunications tunnels on campus, and this water was still threatening to enter buildings and cause them to flood from within.

University Avenue was essentially a river through most of the eastern half of the campus with water overtaking the basements of the many fraternities and sororities that line the street. Also affected by water on the eastern end of the university were the USDA Human Nutrition Center, the [old] Ralph Engelstad Arena, and Memorial Stadium, where the Astroturf of the football field could be seen flooding on top of a foot of water.

Later in the day, after a prolonged effort to stave off flooding, several buildings at the Energy and Envrionmental Research Center (EERC) also succumbed to the water.

Farther to the west, Wilkerson Hall now had water pushing up to its entrance and a submerged lower level. Selke and Noren Halls, two residence halls behind Wilkerson, also had water coming into their basements.

During the day, word had spread that the downtown fire was likely electrical in nature, caused by not shutting off power to buildings before they flooded. This was a serious concern for UND officials, as they realized that the electricity was still on in most buildings on campus. A frantic effort then began to go into all buildings and make sure power was turned off. By evening, electricity was off in most places, with the exception of the USDA Research Center. For a couple of reasons – the most important being that nobody at UND could get in contact with the operator of the building, the USDA – electricity at this building was not shut off.

Personnel at UND Flight Operations worked hard on April 21 giving helicopter rides for university, state, and local leaders. These rides provided the leaders with some of their first views of the extent of damage to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

UND also began providing much-needed workspace for the hundreds of journalists that had come to Grand Forks from all parts of the country. The university’s Television Center, housed in the newly-completed Ryan Hall on the far western end of campus, was made available for use by national media outlets, including NBC and CNN.

However, perhaps the most significant event of April 21 was President Baker’s early-evening announcement that UND’s summer session would be held as scheduled beginning on May 12. Although many thought the president had “gone nuts,” he stood firm and said he was committed to do everything he could to have the university open in time, to prove that UND was not going to let the flood of 1997 wash it away.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.

Videos related to this entry:
Aerial views on April 21, 1997 show the "devastation beyond belief in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks"

Watch as the Emergency Animal Rescue Service rescues stranded pets in Grand Forks

WCCO-TV reports on what life is like for the thousands of flood evacuees living at the Grand Forks Air Force Base

The first seven or so minutes of the KARE 11 10 o'clock news from April 21, 1997

Pictures related to this entry:

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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Previous Posts

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
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Flood of '97 Series: The River Closes In
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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