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Monday, May 07, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: Reopenings

The first half of May in 1997 was characterized by the sights, sounds, and oftentimes, smells of flood-recovery efforts. Those whose homes had been damaged were kept busy by the stressful task of sorting through damaged belongings and discarding everything that could not salvaged. In most cases, anything that touched the floodwaters could safely be called unsalvageable.

Preliminary estimates revealed the extent to which homes were damaged within the valley. In Grand Forks, 16,000 homes were officially declared damaged; in East Grand Forks, the number was 2,500 homes. Elsewhere, there were 600 damaged homes in Breckenridge and between 200 and 300 in Ada. Estimates for the total cost of all structures damaged were running well into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although the Red River had been quick to rise to bring about devastating flooding, it was taking its time to recede. By the second week of May, the flood was 1997 was still technically occurring, as all gauges along the Red River were continuing to report levels above flood stage. It wouldn’t be until May 17 that the Red would drop below flood stage at its headwaters in Wahpeton/Breckenridge. For Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, the Red didn’t drop below flood stage until May 19 – nearly a full month after it crested at 54.33 feet.

Still, even at levels above flood stage, the river was manageable at this time, and communities, large and small, that had frantically built earthen and ring dikes in the days before flooding struck were busy taking them down. Grand Forks’ temporary dikes, which were blocking streets and disrupting traffic patterns in some cases, began coming down on May 5. Elsewhere, county roads that had been cut through in order to prevent overland flooding from taking over houses and communities were slowly being repaired.

May 8 turned into a significant day for UND, since it was the day that what had been called the “virtual university” was shut down and the actual university officially reopened. Although not all staff returned to their jobs on this first day, the reopening symbolized that UND had successfully endured the flood.

Preparing residence halls to house flood-victims and relief workers continued to be a high priority for university officials, who announced on May 8 how they would apportion the available rooms. Summer session students would be housed in Selke and Noren Halls, UND employees and their families would get Brannon, McVey, and West Halls, displaced residents would be assigned to Fulton, Johnstone, and Smith Halls, relief workers and trades people to Squires Hall, and FEMA and Small Business Administration employees to Swanson Hall. Bek, Hancock and Walsh halls, still needing repairs from flood damage, would be held as backup facilities and used only if all other space filled up. “Opening day” for occupancy was set as May 10.

FEMA was instrumental in the behind-the-scenes work of getting the residence halls open to flood victims. The government agency had already announced that it would compensate the university all costs involved in providing the emergency housing, and, in turn, set up a system so that all flood victims could get the housing at no cost.

As important as May 8 was, May 12 was even more important, since it marked the start of the summer session at UND. The complete, on-time, beginning of classes, which seemed nearly unfeasible at the time it was announced during the height of flooding ended up taking place without much of a hitch. Enrollment for the summer session totaled 2,852 students – down from the previous year’s number of 3,382, but better than the earlier projection of a 30 percent decline.

Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were finally fully connected once more on May 13 after the Sorlie Bridge on DeMers Avenue reopened. The Point Bridge, another of the three bridges spanning the Red River between the two cities, reopened for traffic on May 11.

With the May 12 announcement that water within the city of Grand Forks was once more safe to drink, the city was well on its way to recovery. Just how long the recovery process would take, however, was unknown.

Check back around May 15 for a “conclusion” to this series.

Pictures related to this entry:

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.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

April Pictures

I wanted to take some time now and post something not entirely related to the flood of 1997 - pictures that I took during the past month. As you may notice, all of these photos are posted at the recently-created Picasa Web Albums over at Google. Although I'm not completely sold on this service yet, it does provide something I've been looking for: a place to publicly and easily share my photos. Imageshack, which I have been using to host my pictures, recently launched an image sharing service, but, so far, I haven't been impressed. The servers there are often slow, and it appears impossible to group photos into individual albums. Plus, it should go without saying that Google's service makes it much easier to search for photos that others have uploaded. With any luck, I'll be working on my photo galleries at Google during the next few weeks, so that soon you'll be able to go to and view photos that I've taken.

April 3, 2007: The month of April started off on a particularly cold, wintry side throughout much of the Upper Midwest. While not unheard of, the cold was still unusual for the month of April, and was even accompanied with a storm that dumped nearly a foot of snow in some areas of central and northern Minnesota. The Grand Forks area missed the worst of the storm, but still picked up nearly an inch of snow and enjoyed scenes of blowing snow reminiscent of, perhaps, December 3 rather than April 3.

Though the coulee had just become ice-free a few days prior, it froze up once again on April 3 after more than a day of below-freezing temperatures. The new ice was very smooth thanks to the strong winds pushing at the water while it was freezing.

In this photo, you can see streaks of blowing snow being pushed down the sidewalk in the 30 mph winds.

Bundling up was a necessity at the time - the temperature was 14°F, and, with a wind blowing at 28 mph, the wind chill was -6°F. This was probably one of the coldest April days I've ever experienced.

April 4, 2007: After the snowstorm, high pressure settled in, and the following day was relatively clear. Early in the evening, I slowly walked behind Twamley Hall (the administrative building at UND) to see if I could get pictures of the huge flock of robins I had noticed hanging around a few nearby trees a few days earlier. The robins were a bit aprehensive of me at first, but eventually they started coming closer so that they could get some sips from a puddle created by melting snow.

This one here was doing his best to convince me that he wasn't the one who dropped the butt into the puddle. I wasn't buying it, though.

I don't know what kind of birds these are, but they were also sitting in the same trees the robins were.

The coulee was still frozen, as the temperature on April 4 did not make it above 25°F for the entire day. At 7 pm, the temperature was 21°F and the wind chill 6°F. The February-like temperatures made it strange to still be light out so late in the day.

April 14, 2007: With temperatures settling into a more seasonal pattern by the middle of the month, I went out to take a few pictures of the coulee at UND. My intention was to compare these pictures with those taken in roughly the same areas 10 years prior during the major flood. I never got around to doing that, but it's still interesting to note how drastically different the pictures would have turned out if I would have taken them April 14, 1997.

This is the western side of Smith Hall. 10 years ago on roughly this date, water would have been approaching the top of the dike protecting the hall and volunteers would be busy stacking sandbags on top of it.

Another view of the west side of Smith Hall. Once again, the coulee ran right up to the basement of the hall, almost submerging it completely.

This is the Fox Memorial Bridge going over the coulee. During the worst of the flood, the water came up to the top of the black railing.

The Adelphi Fountain stand next to the coulee. Water came up nearly to the spot where I stood to take this picture.

April 20, 2007: Like all other universities around the country, UND mourned the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings. On what was declared the National Day of Mourning, a Virginia Tech display unexpectedly (to me, anyway) showed up in one of the most highly trafficked areas of campus.

I don't know if the original intent was to have people post messages on the display, but here's one that somebody wrote. I think this is the only one that ever appeared on the outdoor display, as there was an "official" poster-type of board available in the student union for people to send condolences and well-wishes. That board ended up being completely full of dozens, maybe hundreds, of messages from different people.

While out taking pictures, everything just lined up perfectly to get this shot. A small hole that allowed the sun to peek through suddenly appeared in the sky while I was near the flag next to Twamley Hall. Even more fortunate was that the wind at the time was relatively strong and blowing from such a direction so as to illuminate the flag perfectly head-on. In addition, the sky behind the flag looked ominous thanks to the sun reflecting off the clouds, and the flag itself was at half-mast out of respect to victims of the Virginia Tech tragedy. All in all, this was probably one of the most beautiful, short-lived scenes I've ever witnessed.

Just to add it as a side note, the flag was ironically ripped right off the pole a few hours later during a windstorm/thunderstorm that rolled through the area with winds topping 60 mph.

April 25, 2007: The Virginia Tech display ended up staying in place for one week. Later on the 25th, a Thursday, some fresh flowers were laid at its base. I intended to wait for the sun to come out on Friday morning so that I could get some pictures, but, by then, the display was gone, and the flowers were placed near the eagle monument.

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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001