FROM THE ARCHIVES: Broken dikes, shattered hopes: 25 years ago city officials ask residents to evacuate

This story was originally published on April 19, 1997.

Lincoln Drive
Homes in the Lincoln Drive area of Grand Forks, ND, were evacuated hours before the dikes gave way, flooding the homes with about eight feet of water. (Grand Forks Herald File Photo/Jackie Lorentz)

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 19, 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 .

City officials asked residents to leave Grand Forks late Friday.

The evacuation is a voluntary one. It covers the entire city.

It came after a day of dike failures and an evening marked by flagging efforts to hold back the Red River, which had reached a historic high level in the early morning hours.


“Absolutely do not sleep in your basements anywhere in Grand Forks tonight,” Emergency Operations Director Jim Campbell said. “Anyone in Grand Forks with relatives out of the city, we would highly recommend you stay with them for the next day or two.”

Officials suggested that residents seek shelter at the new National Guard Armory or at Red River High School. Grand Forks Air Force Base, about 15 miles west of the city, was prepared to take in evacuees. The base could accommodate about 2,000 people, Lt. Byron Sieber, the Police Department’s media officer, said.

Evacuees should enter the base through the main gate north of the Emerado exit on U.S. Highway 2. The National Weather Service issued a new flood crest prediction at mid-evening, saying that the Red River could reach 54 feet by late today. A flood of that level would cover 90 percent of Grand Forks with at least some water, Police Lt. Byron Sieber said.

Flood stage in Grand Forks in 28 feet.

Flood-fighting efforts were largely suspended Friday.

A downtown Grand Forks resident is dressed up and waiting to be evacuated April 19, 1997.
Beth Keiser/Associated Press

“It’s tough to fight this in the dark,” Sieber said. “There are areas of town that are really in trouble - like Elmwood, the Sunbeam Addition” - neighborhoods on the south side of the city.

Campbell said so much water was flowing into Grand Forks that it wasn’t worth trying to stop the flow, and that construction of new dikes might cause greater damage.

During the evening, storm sewers in the downtown area began to fail.


One such failure forced the Emergency Operations Center to abandon the Grand Forks Police Station for quarters on the UND campus.

About 9 p.m., officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of the Central Park area and neighborhoods — including some businesses -- on the south edge of downtown.

Water rose so quickly in areas south of the Burlington Northern tracks bisecting the downtown area that some residents couldn’t rescue their cars. Some left in a city dump truck and some in National Guard humvees.

Kennedy Memorial Bridge was reported closed about 1 a.m. today. Officials struggled all day to keep the bridge open and limited traffic across the bridge. It was the only remaining road link between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

An East Grand Forks Fire Dispatcher said shortly before midnight that about one-third of that city had been evacuated and that no new water was breaching dikes.

“It’s just watch and wait,” he said.

“They’re still evacuating the Point area by truck helicopter and airboat. We’re just trying to hold out here.”

Earlier Friday evening, residents of a nursing home in East Grand Forks were evacuated to Thief River Falls, Minn., about 50 miles away.


In Grand Forks, Tom Mulhern, volunteer coordinator for the local United Way, said “There’s nothing we can do tonight. There’s water coming from all different directions.”

Asked if the situation in Grand Forks was hopeless, Mulhern said, “Not from my standpoint.”

According to Sieber, the best Grand Forks can hope for is that we’ve “already crested.” A worst-case scenario, he said, involves loss of life.

The flood-fighting effort will likely resume today. “It’s still worth an effort to try to protect property.”

“Property can be replaced,” he said.

Late Friday, the United Way relocated its volunteer reception area to Red River High School. Volunteers should report there this morning. They will be bused to areas where they are needed.

Sieber was not optimistic about a swift return to homes in the Lincoln Park area, hard hit by flooding following a dike failure at mid-afternoon. Utility authorities will have to inspect each home for safety after the water’s slow recession, and that could take months.

How long until Grand Forks is back to normal? “Semi-normal, I’d say, in a month, a year, two years before we’re back to normal,” Siber said.


The copy of the Grand Forks Herald on April 19, 1997 tears from the press.
Herald file photo

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