April 23 bought more good news to the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Although many houses nearest to the river still had water up to their rooftops, in other places of the city, it was quite apparent that the floodwater was receding. The Red River, at the moment one of the widest rivers in North America, was finally reverting back to its tamer, narrower self.
The cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks continued to be virtually empty, and it appeared that they would be that way for at least a few more days. Those living in areas left relatively dry would be able to come back to their homes the soonest, but those living in the areas entirely inundated would have to wait much longer – a couple of weeks in some cases.
Everybody who evacuated seemed to have one question – “how deep was the water in my part of town?” To try to answer this, KCNN Radio, which had become one of the most important providers of news during the flood, sifted through videotape footage and other reports to put together a map of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks that showed how deep the water had gotten in the different parts of the cities. All one needed to do was call into the station, give his or her address, and somebody at a phone bank would look at the map and estimate how high the water had been. People reacted differently to the news, with some relieved that water had not gotten as high as they had feared and others finally beginning to get a sense of how much post-flood cleanup would be required once they were allowed back into their home.
As the river continued to fall, the sewer system in the city of Grand Forks was slowly brought back online. By the end of the day, 16 of 36 lift stations in the city were working. At the Grand Forks Air Base, the number of evacuees still there had decreased to 600, with more and more people finding temporary housing elsewhere.
Media attention continued to be focused on Grand Forks and East Grand Forks as Elizabeth Dole, President of the American Red Cross, came to town. She toured flooded areas with North Dakota First Lady Nancy Shafer and Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens.
At UND on April 23, recovery efforts increased. After making an inspection of nearly all the university’s buildings the day before, Plant Services officials put together a color-coded campus map that indicated which buildings had sustained flood damage and the extent to which damage occurred. This map became important because it gave university officials a good idea of which buildings would likely be ready for use during the summer semester, which was still expected to begin as scheduled on May 12.
The phone bank that was an essential part of UND’s “virtual university” became operational on this day, and incoming phone calls numbered into the thousands. It took a team of 20 staff working rotating shifts to ensure the call center ran smoothly.
For the first time since the university canceled the remainder of the spring semester, all of the academic deans got together. One of their first priorities was to contact each person scheduled to teach in the summer and find out if he or she would be able to beginning on the 12th. There ended up being only one faculty member who was unable to.
One of the happiest moments on campus came in the evening when Food Service employees provided the first “Red Tag Dinner,” as they would later come to be known, to university officials with “red tags” – tags that identified them as being associated with the university. Even though the menu was limited to whatever was in storage in the Food Services Building, the dinners provided those camped out at the university some of their first hot meals in days.
Water continued to recede downstream in Fargo on this day as well. Cleanup of the Oak Grove Lutheran School and surrounding neighborhood began with help from faculty and students from Hillcrest Lutheran Academy in Fergus Falls. The town of Ada also intensified its cleanup efforts after it was reported that most of the town’s 1,700 residents had returned.
Check back on April 25 for the next installment in this series.
Pictures related to this entry:
Here is one of those maps that shows the extent of flood damage in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.
Sources used in writing this entry:
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.
Varley, Jane. Flood Stage and Rising. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.