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FROM THE ARCHIVES: In 1997, then President Bill Clinton toured Grand Forks after the flood

This story was originally published on April 23, 1997

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President Bill Clinton stands among U.S. senators and congressman and Grad Forks mayor Pat Owens at Three Bay Hanger at Grand Forks Air Force Base on April 22, 1997, days after the dike broke causing massive flooding in Grand Forks, ND.
ERIC HYLDEN/STAFF
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Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 23, 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 .

Fighting to choke back the emotions she's held in check for most of the past week, Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens told President Clinton on Tuesday: “You bring us hope.”

And hope was all that most people were expecting from the president, who came to the region to see firsthand the incredible destruction caused by an ice storm, a blizzard, the Flood of 1997 and last weekend's devastating downtown fire.

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Local officials and citizens alike said they were satisfied the president will now personally understand the painful series of blows that have been dealt the region.

‘Welcome to Water World’

Before the President spoke to flood victims Tuesday afternoon, he was greeted by a sign that read: “Welcome to Water World Mr. President.”

It was a glimmer of wry humor in a five-day period that has overflowed with human tragedy.

“Be good to yourself,” Clinton told a crowd of about 3,000 huddled in a giant airplane hangar at Grand Forks Air Force Base. “You don't have to be ashamed if you're heartbroken.”

Olive drab cots lined the back of the hangar where Clinton spoke. Thousands of dislocated Grand Forks residents are staying at the base because their homes are flooded by the Red River, which continues to hover at 54 feet, 26 feet above flood stage.

Clinton said he's never seen such a series of catastrophes as severe as those that have pelted the Grand Forks region.

“When I saw pictures of some of you stacking sandbags in a blizzard, I thought at first that I had a problem with the reception on my television,” Clinton said.

Clinton 1997
President Clinton reaches over to assure Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens that she was OK after she started her speech with a light comment at the start of a serious briefing on flood damage and flood-fighting efforts from local officials at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Dave Wallis / The Forum

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Surveying the damage

Air Force One arrived at Grand Forks Air Force Base about 11:30 a.m. Clinton greeted local officials, then climbed aboard a helicopter for a personal tour of the devastation.

The president nodded his head in wonder as he looked down on the Red River Valley. Three-fourths of Grand Forks and virtually all of East Grand Forks are submerged.

Neat rows of homes, churches and schools sit in neighborhoods that have no traffic, except for boats and Army National Guard trucks.

The flood did not discriminate. Wealthy neighborhoods have been destroyed along with the rest.

On one helicopter, state and federal officials stared silently out the window at the widespread damage. Nobody attempted to shout above the noise of the helicopter. Midway through the tour, Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services, walked over to U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and merely shook her head.

Mayor Owens and East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss stood side by side as they scanned the disaster.

Worst to come

After his flight, Clinton took an hour to listen to the men and women who have been battling the flood, fire and ice tell him about the problems they face now.

Owens spoke movingly of the city's plight, as she has so many times in the past week.

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“The hardest part is going to be when people are taken back to their homes, when they see the damage that has been done,” Owens said.

Owens, who, like most Grand Forks residents has been a refugee, joked that she had a hard time deciding what to wear to meet the president.

“You look good,” Clinton said.

But Owens answered her own question: “What I wear,” she said, “is the heart and soul of my community.”

Clinton reciprocated with promises of money. He authorized Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse local governments for 100 percent of their flood expenses, rather than the usual 75 percent. He asked FEMA to add Minnesota and South Dakota counties to the grant program. And he asked Congress to authorize an additional $200 million in relief, raising the total Clinton has requested for these Midwest disasters to $448 million.

Curt Kreun of East Grand Forks told Clinton how painful it was to see neighborhood dikes fail. He said he tried to console his neighbors. “You take and hold them in your arms and you tell them it will be all right,” Kreun said.

“What I wear is the heart and soul of my community.”
Pat Owens, Grand Forks Mayor in 1997
Owens and Clinton.jpg
On April 22, 1997, United States President Bill Clinton toured the devastated area via helicopter and then held a joint press conference with Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens.
photo by John Stennes/Grand Forks Herald

City Engineer Ken Vein delivered the worst news. He spoke of the “domino effect” of water cascading over dikes and destroying the city.

“Some parts of the city may never be rebuilt,” Vein said. “There are homes that are floating. The water is eroding new channels.”

Vein said it may take a month before the water and sewer systems are running at all, and much longer before they are fully restored.

As Vein talked, Emergency Manager Jim Campbell leaned against a pillar at the back of the room. “I feel a few pangs of guilt about being here,'' Campbell said. “We're still out fighting this flood.”

Evacuees remain stunned

As Clinton took the stage at the hangar, one of the large spotlights hanging from an overhead scaffolding fizzled, then popped loudly. The crowd flinched, and the Secret Service jumped.

As the crowd looked nervously around, Clinton tried to calm them. “That's up there,” he said. After everyone calmed down, he added: “Well, we've had a fire, a flood, a blizzard - I think we can handle this.”

Laughter and relief swept across the hangar.

It took a lot of fast work to prepare for the president's visit. Brig. Gen. Ken Hess, commander of Grand Forks Air Force Base, said he had 24 hours notice to prepare for Clinton's visit.

Clinton at GFAFB (1997)
President Bill Clinton shakes hands with flood evacuees at Grand Forks Air Force Base. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

Among the evacuees who stayed to hear Clinton was Paul Trettel. He's been staying at the GFAFB shelter since Friday, and he admits it's been a tough time.

Trettel is a truck driver. Or was. Like hundreds of others, he's not sure what the future will bring for his job.

Trettel listened closely as Clinton spoke, a strained look on his strong but haggard face. Later, Trettel fought back emotions as he discussed Clinton's message.

“We were hoping he would answer simple things, like when showers will be available. Where do we go from here,” Trettel said. Although the president didn't answer such questions, Trettel was glad Clinton came.

“It'll mean a lot toward getting people back in their homes.”

Many of those who are staying at the shelter seemed to agree that the biggest value of Clinton's visit was to call attention to the seriousness of the disaster here. They also agreed that the programs Clinton announced will be helpful in the long run and will be much appreciated as individuals and governments work to recover.

But, they said, the president didn't answer their pressing questions: What happens next? How do I contact missing loved ones? Will I have a job? Will I have a home?

Overall, people in the converted hangar showed little emotion as the president spoke.

Julie Britsch, pastor of the Petersburg and Dahlen Lutheran churches who has been working as a chaplain in the shelters since Friday, said the lack of emotion didn't surprise her.

“I think people are really numb. I think it's going to take a long time for it to soak in.”

Moving one more time

Floodwaters forced John and Darlene Stansbury's family from their Second Avenue North home Saturday. On Tuesday, they had to relocate again, this time to make room for President Clinton. The shelter in the 3-Bay Hangar was rearranged for the president's visit.

“When they tell me to move my bed, they're telling me to move my home,” Darlene Stansbury said. “This is my home, because I don't have a home. They searched all of our things.”

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Then President Bill Clinton during a visit to Grand Forks in 1997, days after the dikes broke.
Herald file photo

The Stansburys listened intently to what the president said. His message gave some hope to Darlene and John Stansbury, and to their three sons, 19-year-old Matthew, 18-year-old Mark, and 14-year-old Joshua.

But Darlene Stansbury was a bit skeptical. “I thought it probably was just words,” she said. “But it was good to hear.”

After the president's speech, as hundreds of people rushed to the stage for a chance to shake his hand, the Stansburys stayed away. They were listening to a volunteer describe another shelter at the Park River Bible Camp, near Park River, N.D.

“You can't stay here for another week,” the volunteer said. “It will be much nicer there.”

Darlene and John Stansbury looked at each other and nodded.

“It sounds great. I think we could go tomorrow,” John Stansbury said.

To which their son, Mark, replied, “Can't we go tonight?”

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