FROM THE ARCHIVES: Come hell and high water: 25 years ago, the flood brought some of its toughest days

This story was originally published on April 21, 1997

Come hell and high water photo.jpg
The Security Building, the first downtown building to go up in flames during the 1997 flood, stood in ruins Sunday, April 20, 1997 in the flooded streets of Grand Forks.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 21, 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 .

Traumatized Grand Forks residents continued their exodus from flood-ravaged neighborhoods Sunday, even as they struggled to cope with the devastation wrought by fires that left the downtown looking like a war zone.

After burning for more than a day, the fires left 11 buildings in ruins or severely damaged.


But two more battles were lost Sunday.

The city's water supply was exhausted Sunday morning, which prompted many residents on dry ground to leave their homes.

We're still fighting this flood. We haven't given up.
1997 Emergency Manager Jim Campbell

Public officials also were forced to close United Hospital. Patients were evacuated by 7 p.m., and hospital administrators set up a first aid station at the National Guard Armory.

The Red River rose to 53.9 feet as of 9 p.m. Sunday — about 26 feet above flood stage. The river is expected to crest at 54 feet today and City Engineer Ken Vein said it's projected to hover between 53 and 54 feet for about a week.

gfh eh downtown 1
National Guard assist Grand Forks airport firefighters and NSP crews in downtown in 1997.
Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Also on Sunday, Toby Baker, wife of UND President Kendall Baker, went on the radio to plead with people to help “save our university.” Water from the English Coulee was spreading across campus, and water coming up through the storm sewers made a slow advance down streets across Grand Forks.

The advancing waters are becoming painfully common in Grand Forks. Since a Lincoln Drive dike failed Friday, three-fourths of the city - about 37,000 people — have been evacuated. It's not unusual for homes in the evacuation area to be swamped with 4 to 6 feet of water.

Some locals in the evacuation area, however, are insisting on remaining in their homes. City officials are exceedingly frustrated by residents who've ignored the evacuation notices. Lt. Byron Sieber of the Grand Forks Police Department said authorities are prepared to arrest residents who refuse to leave their homes.

Fire-fighters were stymied Saturday when they had to evacuate apartment dwellers before they could attack downtown fires. Several people living in second- and third-floor apartments defied the flood-evacuation order and their lives were in danger when the fire quickly spread to nearby buildings.


Flood airlift
La Neva Narum, 75, of Grand Forks, is airlifted by the personnel from the Grand Forks Air Force Base from United Hospital to a hospital in Fargo. Herald photo by Jackie Lorentz

“We're going to have loss of life if we don't do something,” Sieber said. Officials implored holdouts to get out of their homes or hang white sheets out of their windows or from their roofs so they can be visible to National Guard rescue equipment.

Four city blocks were affected by the fire that destroyed major downtown landmarks, including the First National Bank and Grand Forks Herald buildings.

The fire erupted at about 4:15 p.m. Saturday in the Security Building at 101 N. Third St. It rapidly spread to buildings in that block; embers from the blaze ignited fires on nearby blocks.

Jerry Vein, a fire department spokesman, said a row of five buildings on North Third Street was completely destroyed. The Herald's newsroom and circulation departments were obliterated by the fire as well as a separate Herald business in the Handy Mail building. The other structures on that block were the former Griggs Landing bar and an apartment building.

First National Bank, at 322 DeMers Ave., sustained what Vein described as “heavy, heavy damage.” The nearby First Financial Center also was struck by the fire.

Vein described Bonzer's restaurant at 12 N. Fourth St. and Formal Affair at 20 N. Fourth St. in a single word: “Gone.”

Vein said the fire department would go building-to-building Sunday to assess the damage.

Meanwhile, city officials said there will be a street-to-street search for holdouts in mandatory evacuation zones.


April 21, 1997
Flood waters cover downtown Grand Forks, N.D., Monday, April 21, 1997 from continued flooding of the Red River which is 25 feet over flood level. Over 60,000 residents have been evacuated in Grand Forks and neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn. Herald file photo

Mayor Pat Owens announced a 24-hour curfew in those areas. “This is not meant to discourage people or keep them away from their homes,” she said. “But at this time, we have to think of their safety.”

Public health also was a concern Sunday. The mayor said the city will distribute drinkable water to residents who are still in town and living in the southwest section of Grand Forks. Between 7 and 11 p.m., water will be distributed at a closed Mobil gas station on North 43rd Street and at the Big Sioux Truck Plaza, which is near 32nd Avenue South and west of I-29.

Ken Vein, who directs the public works department, said it will be at least three weeks before Grand Forks will be able to restore some water service to residents.

It could take longer. The river level must drop several feet before the city can even begin to repair the water plant.

So far, the city still has electrical power, but Vein said that's also a worry. However, safe water and electricity were not his main worries Sunday. In the wake of the mass evacuation, Vein said, “We don't have a public to serve right now.”

Grand Forks Flood Rainbow
The destruction of part of the Grand Forks' historic core helped shape the Historic Preservation Commission after the flood, though some members say more historic properties could have been saved. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

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