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FROM THE ARCHIVES: A city scarred: In April 1997, floodwaters abundant, buildings burnt in Grand Forks

This story was originally published on April 20, 1997

Bill_Fire 07.jpg
Grand Forks firefighters Mike Sandie, left, and Randy Johnson are alone in battling the Saturday afternoon fire that destroyed the Security Building in downtown Grand Forks, N.D. on April 19, 1997 in a photo taken by St. Paul Pioneer Press photojournalist Bill Alkofer.
(Bill Alkofer / Pioneer Press)
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Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 20, 1997. The Herald has selected various flood stories from 1997 to remember the community coming together during a trying time.

To read more archived stories and stories commemorating the 25th anniversary go to grandforksherald.com/flood-of-1997 .


Water continued to drive residents of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks from their homes Saturday. Too much water, and too little.

In Grand Forks, those who weren't flooded out by the spreading waters of the Red River of the North were put on notice that the city soon would be unable to provide that most essential of services: safe drinking water.

Late Saturday afternoon, the crisis ratcheted up yet another notch when fires began to consume several buildings in the heart of downtown.

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The entire city of East Grand Forks was put on notice for mandatory evacuation due to extensive flooding, flood damage and lack of city services. The Point area in the southern part of the city remained isolated, although workers were rescuing people stranded on high ground there.

Residents fled both cities by the thousands, flocking to shelters in Crookston, Thompson and Mayville, N.D., and Grand Forks Air Force Base, among other places. Many others sought shelter with friends and family in other cities.

The National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other local, state and federal agencies stepped up their efforts to respond to emergencies, set up security and assess damages.

Through it all, the Red continued to rise. As of late Saturday, the river stood at just over 53 feet, and the National Weather Service predicted it would continue to rise slowly over the next two days to a crest of 54 feet.

gfh fire retardant
A fire-bombing plane, usually used in forest fires, drops fire retardant on the downtown blaze in April 1997.
Photo by Chuck Kimmerle/Grand Forks Herald

The flood turned destructive Friday, when dikes began breaking, sending river water into the lower areas of town adjacent to the river.

By Saturday, city engineers had a good grasp on what had happened in Grand Forks.

Ken Vein, Grand Forks city engineer, said floodwater first began leaking out of the north end of Lincoln Park Golf Course. That water cascaded into low-lying areas, causing immediate destruction. But it also began creeping north along city streets, pushing up and filling in behind dikes farther north.

That water began to flow into the downtown area by about 9:30 p.m. A short while later, the Emergency Operation Center — command post for the flood fight — had to pack up and head to higher ground on the UND campus. EOC Director Jim Campbell said that, 20 minutes after they left their basement quarters in the Grand Forks Police Department, the basement filled with water.

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By Saturday morning, there was 4 feet of water in parts of the downtown.

But city and state officials said Saturday that the Red was not done doing its damage.

Vein said another foot would make a difference in the amount of damage, even given that the water was over the dikes and at least half of the city already was flooded. Because the city is so flat, he said, even tenths — even hundredths — of an inch of increase in the level of the Red can translate into flooding over a large part of town. A person could travel a mile or more throughout much of Grand Forks and not change as much as a foot in elevation, he said.

While some of the initial flooding Friday was quick and final, flooding Saturday was mostly in slow motion as the Red pushed its way farther west into the city. Dry streets acquired puddles, then became difficult for cars to negotiate and finally became impassable.

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A pedestrian finds one of the few dry spots to cross South Washington Street in April 1997 after floodwater from the Red River covered the road to a depth of up to 2 feet.
Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Late Friday night, Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens issued a voluntary evacuation order for all of Grand Forks. Throughout the day Saturday, more areas were added to the growing portion of the city where evacuation was mandatory.

By noon Saturday, 75 percent of the city was under mandatory evacuation, and 50 percent of the city was experiencing some flooding.

By 8 p.m., 75 percent of the city was experiencing flooding, and officials were moving toward a 100 percent mandatory evacuation order.

“We're piecemealing it,” said Grand Forks Police Lt. Byron Sieber, press officer for the emergency management office. “A general evacuation of the whole area causes problems at the shelters because you have so many people coming at once. We thought it would be best to do it in stages.”

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Although some areas of the city are not expected to flood, citywide evacuation is necessary, in part, because soon — perhaps today — residents will turn on their water faucets and nothing will come out.

Late Friday, floodwaters surrounded the Grand Forks water treatment plant, which stands along the banks of the Red just south of the downtown area. When the plant stopped operating, Vein said, there were about 11 million gallons of purified water in the city's storage system.

Once that water runs out, there will be no more.

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Members of the U.S. Coast Guard patrol the Lincoln Drive area of Grand Forks on April 19, 1997. By 2 p.m. that day, all of Grand Forks east of Columbia Road was under a mandatory evacuation order.
Photo by John Stennes/Grand Forks Herald

Although officials told each other all day that “This, too, shall pass,” it became clear Saturday that it won't pass quickly.

The river crest is expected to hang around for another seven to 10 days. Then the river will begin to fall slowly, a process that could take days, even weeks. Only then will the city be able to fully assess the damage, determine what must be done and begin reconstruction.

Little else will be possible until the city water plant is put back on line.

Vein said workers may try to dike around the plant, pump out water and get a head start on recommissioning the plant.

But he acknowledged that it still could be two or three weeks, perhaps more.

For the displaced residents of two entire cities, it will seem like an eternity.

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