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FROM THE ARCHIVES: The day that changed everything

This story was originally published on April 20, 1997.

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
We are part of The Trust Project.

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 .


Our hometown will never be the same. How could it ever be? The catastrophe that has struck Grand Forks calls everything into question. All of our plans and projects will be re-evaluated in light of the enormous events of April 1997 — ice and water and fire.

Our relationship with the river has changed. Of course, our river has flooded before, several times catastrophically. But it has never delivered such a stunning blow. In the last week, the Red River has been an inexorable force, and its current tore at our levies and our lives. In neighborhood after neighborhood, the water found its level, and in most, it was well above the level of our daily lives, in our homes and in our consciousness.

Grand Forks has sustained deep wounds, and there will be scars. On Saturday evening, as we write, the river continues its historic rise and fire is tearing at the heart of downtown. Thousands of buildings are immersed. Several of the town's most historic structures are alight. There is no apparent power that can save them. These buildings were part of our past.

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The Herald's buildings may have been among them. We can't know. Water keeps us from our usual workplace. We are producing this edition at a UND computer lab. The loss of these structures — unwitnessed by most of us — was among the unexpected, dramatic moments of our community's catastrophe. Our notions about ourselves must also have changed. Thousands of us found the strength of character to help selflessly, even heroically. As our homes were destroyed, we reminded each other that ``It's only stuff,'' and that ``So many others have it so much worse.''

We must have wondered, all of us, whether any community anywhere had ever suffered so much, and yet we know that others have. Miraculously, we have been spared loss of life. Marvelously, we have found friendships we didn't know about, as strangers came to offer labor, called to offer shelter, reached out to offer strength. Could it have been so in any other town? Yes, perhaps. But never on such a scale in our hometown. And it is in that spirit, from that indomitable strength, that our hometown will go forward. It is going to be a difficult time. Let us begin this morning.

Today, we remember another community not unlike our own - geographically isolated, demographically homogenous, chronologically mature. Rapid City, S.D., was devastated by a flood in the early 1970s. The heart of the town was destroyed. Rapid City remade itself, embracing the stream that struck it. Now, Rapid City is among the liveliest cities of the Plains, economically successful and culturally unique. This is the status that Grand Forks has long sought, most often successfully. Can this be our city's destiny? It is certainly our city's opportunity.

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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