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Photos from readers portray story of resilience, 25 years after Greater Grand Forks Flood of 1997

All told, more than 150 photos of the event were brought to the Herald in recent weeks, capturing heart-wrenching scenes and reflecting the enormity of the tragedy.

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Volunteers who helped clean out a house on Fifth Avenue North during the Flood of 1997. Among them are out-of-state volunteers who endured Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Submitted by Truman Bratteli.
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GRAND FORKS — As she sifts through pictures from the Flood of 1997, Marcia Wahlstrand still can't believe the devastation wrought by the natural disaster that overtook Grand Forks 25 years ago.

“It’s kind of hard to talk about what we went through,” Wahlstrand said. “We felt so devastated that it all had happened. It was like a dream.”

Among her most vivid memories of the Flood of ‘97 is the evening the dike broke. She and her husband, Scott, were with hundreds of others who had worked almost around the clock for weeks to contain the rising Red River.

“That evening, the National Guard got up on the dikes (in the Riverside Park area) and said everyone had to leave because the dike was breaching,” Wahlstrand recalled. “It sticks so strongly with me because I had never seen so many men cry; I saw tears on their faces as they dragged their shovels. We felt so defeated. ... I knew what it must have meant to them.”

Wahlstrand is among about two dozen area residents who answered a Herald request to provide pictures to commemorate the anniversary of the nation's largest mass evacuation of a city since the Civil War, an event that came after the Red River broke through walls of sandbags and flooded most of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. It happened 25 years ago this weekend.

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All told, more than 150 photos of the event were brought to the Herald in recent weeks, capturing heart-wrenching scenes and reflecting the enormity of the tragedy.

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This photo shows some of the secondary damage wrought by the Flood of 1997 -- in this case, a camper that rammed into the side of a home. Submitted by Marcia Wahlstrand.

Although the Herald has a vast collection of its own photos of the Flood of 1997, the readers who submitted photos for this project now help tell a more intimate story of the impact of the historic flood.

Two dozen of the photos are featured in the Herald's special section commemorating the event, while more than 100 are being published online at grandforksherald.com.

For weeks, in April 1997, exhaustion had run bone-deep as many people who fought the floodwaters late into the night had to get up in the morning and go to work, Wahlstrand said.

Evacuating from the city in April ‘97, Wahlstrand and her family went to stay at her brother’s home near Fargo.

“There were 19 of us there. We would stay up way into the evening to watch TV (coverage of the flood),” she said.

Like many in this area, she lost irreplaceable family photos, as well as her wedding gown and wedding album, she said. “We lost the kids’ baby books. They were gone.”

She attempted to wipe the water off photos that were salvaged. In one of them, “I wiped my husband’s grandmother’s face off, and we didn’t have another,” she said. “I learned later that I wouldn’t have had to do that.”

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Among the photos Wahlstrand loaned to the Herald is one that shows a camper, jutting through the wall of a house. Another shows a home ripped from its foundation.

In the aftermath of the flood, when Wahlstrand and her friend Janice Waletzko, a fellow teacher at Grand Forks Air Force Base, visited the base, “it was heartwarming to see that our school had been turned into a nursing home,” she said. “We felt comfortable that it was a respite for those who really needed it.”

Waletzko’s own home on Lincoln Drive, where she had lived for 17 years, was inundated with water that reached about 3 feet from the ceiling on the main floor, she said. She and her husband, Jerry, returned to find the floor had buckled, the foundation had cracks in it – and, oddly enough, “a piano was resting on a goblet,” she said

“The house was condemned, so no workers could come in the house to help me,” Janice
said. “It was real hard.”

Waletzko's photos from that time show mud and grime caked on most everything, and sheer devastation inside a home.

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This was a common scene throughout Greater Grand Forks after the waters receded following the Flood of 1997. Submitted by Janice Waletzko.

The Wahlstrands’ family members and others, including parents of her students, came to help clean out their home. With awe and gratitude in her voice, Marcia Wahlstrand recalled the untold number of strangers who came, from all over the country, to help flood victims here.

“Everyone wanted to help; kids were helping out,” she said. “I think of all that the Red Cross did for us, and the Salvation Army. I still think of the cans of water we drank from.”

Permeating the community was a sense that everyone was in the same boat. “There was such a feeling of unity in the community,” she said.

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That shared feeling, in the face of sadness and destruction, was brought to life in the Grand Forks Public Schools stage production “The Big Bad Flood,” which drew thousands to numerous performances.

The play was riddled with humor, a healing salve in a time of grief, that everyone whose lives had been upended and whose homes had been damaged or destroyed could relate to.

“That was a big culmination,” Wahlstrand said.

Numerous photos that came to the Herald showed property owners and volunteers working together to clear debris after the floodwaters subsided.

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This photo is of Ben and Bev Clayburgh, among the wreckage of the Flood of 1997. Submitted by Vicki Fredrikson.
Markov Oleksandr, 32 and a sales man turned into a humanitarian aid volunteer, talks to people as they receive aid supplies, amid Russia's Invasion of Ukraine, in Chernihiv
Markov Oleksandr, 32 and a sales man turned into a humanitarian aid volunteer, talks to people as they receive aid supplies, amid Russia's Invasion of Ukraine, in Chernihiv, Ukraine April 9, 2022. “While my parents were hiding in the basement, Russian missiles hit my grandmother's house, who lives in the same street. My father ran out of the basement to extinguish the fire while a the second missile hit our house. My father was injured on the leg by shrapnel.”, Markov said.
REUTERS / Zohra Bensemra

Roger Stadstad, who was working full-time with the North Dakota Army National Guard, recalled the eerie silence that hung over downtown after floodwaters overtook the city.

“I remember how quiet it was downtown,” he said. “Like it was dead. There was nothing going on.”

Because of his role with the National Guard, Stadstad, of rural Manvel, North Dakota, had access to locations “where no one else could go,” so he witnessed things that most others did not, he said.

He saw a wave of river water coming down the street when the dikes failed, he said.

The area inside the Third Street Mall, an enclosed, pedestrian-only mall fronting DeMers Avenue, was an unbelievable mess, Stadstad said. All sorts of items “were floating in the water.”

The National Guard’s most important task was to get people out of their homes and transported to Grand Forks Air Force Base, which became the first, safe refuge for many whose homes and neighborhoods were threatened by flood waters.

Photos that Stadstad loaned to the Herald show efforts by the National Guard and local fire crews to combat the flood and the fire that devastated downtown buildings as the waters rose.

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Fire crews work to extinguish flames of the First National Bank building in downtown Grand Forks during the Flood of 1997. Note that the truck has been loaded onto a National Guard flatbed, since the floodwaters were too high to be navigated by most vehicles. Submitted by Roger Stadstad.

Air base as medical outpost

When it was decided that the hospital would have to close, Dr. Pat Moore and his colleagues worked in the emergency room to determine where the patients would go.

“Fortunately, there were ambulances from many cities” that transported patients to other facilities,” he said, “and National Guard helicopters took them to different areas.”

A photo that Moore brought to the Herald shows a military helicopter low on the horizon near the hospital.

Grand Forks Air Force Base also served as a vital location to provide care for patients and others displaced by the flood.

The air base hangar, outfitted with cots, was a shelter “for people who didn’t have a place to go,” said Moore, a family physician. Among Moore's photos is one of that scene, showing dozens of cots closely placed together as evacuees milled about.

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Evacuees bide their time at Grand Forks Air Force Base during the Flood of 1997. Submitted by Pat Moore.

“It was a little strange, because I actually ended up practicing in the very same office where I practiced when I was stationed at the air base,” he said.

After they left their home on Terrace Drive, Pat and his wife, RoxAnne, lived in their RV that they parked at a campground near Larimore, North Dakota, for about a month. Employees there “were extremely helpful,” supplying the space at no charge, filling campers’ propane tanks and emptying waste containers, Pat said. “They were just unreal. The people of Larimore were so great, too.”

Returning to their home, the Moores found water in the lower levels that came “within a foot of the upstairs,” RoxAnne said. “We lived in half a house for a long time.”

“It was amazing to me the damage that flood waters did,” she said. Appliances, including a washing machine and freezer, “had traveled down the hallway into totally another room.”

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A home damaged by the Flood of 1997 is shown with an inspiring message that says "I will succeed in life in general with self confidence, faith and with the help of God almighty." Submitted by Alyce-Mae Christianso

‘Like a war zone’

When the dikes broke in Grand Forks, Everett and Karen Knudsvig first evacuated to a relative’s farm near Buxton, North Dakota, and later to their daughter’s home in Wisconsin.

When they returned to Grand Forks weeks later, “it felt like a war zone,” Karen said. “It wasn’t a nice feeling.”

A photo from the air, loaned to the Herald by the Knudsvigs, shows smoke rising from burning downtown buildings and water literally everywhere the eye can see.

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A view from the air, looking north, as flames burned in downtown Grand Forks amid the Flood of 1997. Submitted by Everett Knudsvig.

She and her husband saw “piles of refrigerators, stoves, washers and dryers” as they drove around the city’s northwest side, she said. “That got me; that was a hard thing to see.”

At their home on Olson Drive, they found “a lot of water in the basement, but it didn’t touch the ceiling,” she said.

The sounds of sirens that had warned people to evacuate their homes also made a lasting impression.

“Every time I hear sirens now, that still comes back,” Karen said.

Strange scenes

Catarino “Ken” Dominguz was living in a basement apartment, in an older house on South Third Street, when the flood hit.

When he returned to his apartment, after evacuation, he found “grass and leaves on the ceiling,” he said. “A chest of drawers had disintegrated, and a large tube TV was lying face down. Everything I touched just fell apart.”

The house, near Minnesota Street, was demolished, he said.

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A toy basketball hoop is shown buried in the muck as the floodwaters receded after the Flood of 1997. Submitted by Catarino Dominguez.

Renae Bye, who lived in the 600 block of Ninth Avenue South at the time of the flood, said the day the dikes broke, “overland water came in a gigantic crest — eight inches of water covered Lincoln Drive.”

After the flood, the scene at their house “was terrible, eerie, quiet, hardly anyone around, no power or noise,” Bye said. “It was our home but everything was strange and odd. It was just eerie.”

Memory of the sounds that were so prevalent then "is what stands out to me the most,” she said.

For months after floodwaters receded, “we would hear (machinery) up and down the streets hauling washers and dryers, or food trucks coming.”

In the days leading up to the flood, Bye remembered, “The kids were helping make sandwiches and sandbagging and clearing debris from the street drains. We just kept busy, not knowing that we’d be evacuated,” she said. The night that happened, “we grabbed everything we thought we’d need for a few days and we left town.” They had no idea they’d be gone for five weeks.

At her parents’ home in Minto, North Dakota, on TV, “we watched my husband’s place of employment, First National Bank, burning down,” she said. Later, Alan Bye was assigned to another location in Fargo.

When Bye and her family could return to their home, they found water up to the rafters in the basement — a bin of Legos was floating in the water, it had never tipped over. Debris was all over the yard.

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High piles of snow are shown in this photo, taken before the Flood of 1997. Submitted by Renae Bye.

She recalled having to heat water on the stove “and carry it to a bathtub upstairs for baths until we could get a water heater put in. It was a big inconvenience, but at least we were in our own home, and we went from there to make it liveable.”

The weeks after returning home “were the strangest times of our lives,” Bye said. “Unless you lived there and went through the experience, it was impossible to describe to anyone what it was really like.”

And yet there was hope. A photo submitted to the Herald by Elsie Egstad shows a rainbow in the distance. On the photo is written "Waiting it out in the camper 'til we could begin cleanup! Blessings!"

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This photo of a rainbow comes from Elsie Egstad. On the photo is written "Waiting it out in the camper 'til we could begin cleanup! Blessings!" Submitted by Elsie Egstad.

READ MORE FLOOD ANNIVERSARY CONTENT
The Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project, with a roughly $3 billion budget and an operational date projected for 2027, will create a channel for sending floodwaters around the west side of Fargo and onward north.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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