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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: When It Couldn't Get Any Worse...

This Grand Forks Herald article recalling the events of April 19, 1997 was put together by staff writer Mike Brue.

Grand Forks and East Grand Forks in the early morning dark were on the verge of flood defeat to the Red and Red Lake rivers.

At a Grand Forks news conference, with North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer at her side, a weary [Grand Forks] Mayor Pat Owens announced further evacuations in the eastern part of the city and urged the city's remaining residents to leave.

At his own flooding home on James Avenue in East Grand Forks, a tired Mayor Lynn Stauss realized his city's defeat between midnight and 1 a.m. as he listened to one sandbagger after another describe lost flood battles. "They were in every part of town," Stauss recalled later on this day. "They all seemed to lose it at the same time."

Then the Kennedy Memorial Bridge [on U.S. Highway 2], the bridge that leaders in both cities vowed to do everything possible to keep open, was closed to traffic.

The Red had passed 52 feet. Determined pockets of homes and neighborhoods fought the rivers into the overnight, but the organized volunteer efforts by the cities ended.

By about 1 a.m., Valley Golf Course and the Griggs Park and Sherlock Park neighborhoods in East Grand Forks were taking water as dikes failed. Murky brown water rose into the second stories of some homes and spread into other East Grand Forks neighborhoods, ultimately claiming downtown about 4 a.m.

East Grand Forks' Point neighborhood, flooding since Friday afternoon, was isolated, with the Murray Bridge closed and earthen dikes or floodwaters blocking other routes out.

In Grand Forks, the Red's strong flood currents continued to pass through the Lincoln Drive neighborhood. That area, surrounded on three sides by dikes, already had filled like a basin up to the river's flood level and homes' roofs.

For several miles south, flooding claimed homes in other low-lying neighborhoods.

From the north, Red River backwater continued to worsen flooding on the English Coulee.

Floodwaters backed up through storm sewers, sometimes bursting open sewer caps, steadily moved westward through the eastern part of Grand Forks….Water overwhelmed streets, yards, vehicles, basements and sometimes first floors. Even the city's Emergency Operations Center in the police building downtown was forced out to UND.

Water moved into the heart of downtown, driving out mailroom and pressroom employees of the Grand Forks Herald shortly before 2:30 a.m. About 90 minutes later, rescuers evacuated senior residents through floodwater and floating lobby furniture from the nearby Ryan House.

By dawn, downtown had a layer of floodwater about 4 feet deep.

In many neighborhoods, startled residents awoke to find their homes or apartments surrounded by floodwater. By noon, floodwater reached almost all of East Grand Forks, and roughly half of Grand Forks, where mandatory evacuation areas now covered about three-quarters of the city.

Military and civilian rescuers used helicopters, boats and trucks to evacuate about 3,000 residents stuck on the Point. In both cities, Guard vehicles and boats brought people to dry drop-off sites, where they were taken by bus to shelters in Grand Forks Air Force Base and Crookston, which had just battled back Red Lake River floodwaters.

"We're all saying, 'How did we get spared in this?'" said Kathy Umlauf, a Crookston city employee helping out the evacuation effort. "We think we've been spared to help." More than 4,000 East Grand Forks evacuees checked through Crookston by late night; at one point, about 800 planned to stay.

"I don't ever want to go back there," said Roger LeBlanc, East Grand Forks, after he, his 5-year-old daughter and his girlfriend evacuated their home. "You work that long and hard, and then you lose it all." He turned away to wipe away a tear.

In late morning, UND President Kendall Baker announced that the remainder of spring semester was canceled. As if waiting for that cue, hundreds of students left dorms and other housing within minutes, getting in vehicles and joining lines of cars leaving Grand Forks.

"I'm done, graduated just like that," said Chris Borgan, a UND senior, as he filled his tank at a bustling convenience store to leave town.

Workers built a dike around the Medical Park complex in Grand Forks, while helicopters evacuated patients. Across Columbia Road, evacuees nearly emptied the shelves at Hugo's supermarket. "We had a line, honest to God, that wrapped around the store," said store manager Dave Borseth.

In the late afternoon, people throughout Grand Forks and East Grand Forks began to notice dark smoke coming from downtown. A new drama unfolded.

About 4:15 p.m., smoke was reported coming from downtown's pink brick Security Building on the 100 block of North Third Street. The smoke shortly turned into flames. And throughout downtown, some people remained in second-floor apartments, defying the city's evacuation order.

City firefighters' efforts to stem the fire were thwarted by floodwaters, now more than 4 feet deep. It stalled their diesel engine pumper and slowed other trucks trying to reach the scene. To fill hoses, firefighters had to pump floodwaters.

Firefighters' struggles to make any headway were distracted by the need to hasten evacuations. They worked with the National Guard and others to get people to safety.

"The firemen pounded on the door and were telling me to leave," said Rex Sorgatz, a UND student who planned to wait out the flood in his apartment at 111 N. Third St. Outside, Sorgatz saw the Security Building fire as he was hustled to a boat.

Once evacuations finished, a U.S. Forest Service plane began its drops of bright-red chemical retardant on the fire. Helicopters dipped large buckets into the flooded Red, then returned to drop water on the fire, spreading northward on the 100 block of North Third Street.

"Everything on that in trouble," Deputy Fire Chief Pete O'Neill said.

The fire eventually leapfrogged toward DeMers Avenue to buildings on several other blocks.

In East Grand Forks, where there was no power, Stauss ordered remaining city residents to evacuate. By 7 p.m., he said, about 90 percent had. Another city official said later that about 200 people refused to leave.

"I'm the first mayor to lose a town, that's how devastating it is," Stauss said in response to one question. But his city's police station and water treatment plant remained successfully protected by a last-minute sandbagging effort.

By 8 p.m., flooding covered about three-quarters of Grand Forks. The city was "piecemealing" neighborhood evacuation orders, police said, because they didn't want to overrun the region's shelters.

As midnight approached, the Red had reached just beyond 53 feet. Against block upon block of dark, silent neighborhoods, the downtown sky glowed.

The article includes material from Herald and wire reports.

April 19, 1997 became the darkest day in the history of Grand Forks and arguably the entire state of North Dakota. Incomprehensible devastation could be seen throughout the entire city of East Grand Forks and over half of Grand Forks. The biggest blow, however, came in the afternoon when fire broke out in Grand Forks’ proud downtown. It’s the pictures of the burning downtown buildings surrounded by 4 to 6 feet deep floodwaters that catapulted the flood of 1997 to national attention, and it’s also what would come to represent the lowest low of the flood. If there’s just one thing that earned the Grand Forks Herald its Pulitzer Prize following the flood of 1997, it’s the pictures that its photographers took of the fires. The same fires that were tragically destroying the Herald’s very own building that housed over a hundred years of archives and records.

The events unfolding in Grand Forks were the biggest news of April 19, even though residents in Fargo were still battling floodwaters there. Still, the situation was beginning to look better, as city officials were able to build the emergency dike to the south of town. In addition, officials in Cass County were able to alleviate some of the threat from overland flooding by tearing out a large chuck of County Road 81 south of the city and effectively creating a channel for the waters to flow through.

As stated earlier, UND called off classes for the remainder of the spring semester on this day and urged all students to evacuate immediately. As to how final grades would be assigned for the spring semester, students could either take the grade they had received up to April 19 or take an “incomplete.”

The need to get all faculty, staff, and students out of Grand Forks took precedence over trying to save any threatened buildings. As a result, the ongoing effort to save Smith Hall from going underwater was ended in the early morning hours. The decision to leave the dike was tremendously difficult, with the director of Plant Services, LeRoy Sondrol, recalling, “I think that was maybe the lowest time…that I went through. When you knew people wanted to keep going, and you knew no matter how hard you tried that you were going to lose it. To tell people to retreat from the dikes when they wanted to keep going. You just literally had to go face-to-face with people and say, ‘This is it. We’ve got to quit.’”

The dike that so many had works weeks on gave way later during the day, sending water rushing into the cafeteria and laundry rooms that occupied the basement of Smith Hall.

Elsewhere on campus, the English Coulee had risen higher than expected, and floodwater was coming in from the north, south, and east. Other problems were also cropping up. The sewer system in Grand Forks was now completely filled with rushing floodwater, meaning that it was apt to back up in buildings left dry from the outside. In other words, buildings could begin flooding from the inside. Such a thing happened in the UND Medical School; by day’s end, floodwater and raw sewage had filled up the basement.

The same scene also played out in the tunnel between Selke Hall and Wilkerson Hall. UND officials at one point tried to build a sandbag dike inside the tunnel, but it was no use. The lower level of Wilkerson Hall by days end had also gone underwater.

The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) and the steam plant were two other buildings that succumbed to flooding on this day.

Because all buildings with basements were now in danger of getting flooded, UND officials had to work frantically to assess how they could salvage the most in the shortest amount of time. It had now become a foregone conclusion that it would be impossible to halt flooding on campus.

One of the first things protected was the university’s mainframe computer in the basement of Upson II. The university’s Technical Support Specialist, along with officials from IBM, completely powered everything down and transported the most critical and expensive equipment to the third floor of Upson II. Other components were later taken to Fargo.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.

Videos related to this entry:
Devestation in Grand Forks. WCCO-TV's Don Shelby narrates this report, one of the most memorable during the worst of the flood.

More destruction abounded in East Grand Forks

"The beginning of the end in Grand Forks." A report chronicling the time during the fire in downtown Grand Forks.

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.

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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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001