MARILYN HAGERTY: Lessons learned from big flood linger on after 15 years

Famous last words: "If we get water in our basement, the whole town will be under water . . ." Fifteen years ago, we all were eating those words as we were driven out of Grand Forks by the flood of the century and seeking shelter. We drove to the...

Famous last words: "If we get water in our basement, the whole town will be under water . . ."

Fifteen years ago, we all were eating those words as we were driven out of Grand Forks by the flood of the century and seeking shelter. We drove to the air base, to Fargo, to Bismarck. We found places far and near to stay and watched television with horror as fire and water devoured our downtown.

This Sunday in Grand Forks, there are many who have no memory of the flood. One of them is Hannah Syverson. She wasn't even born when her parents, Jane and Rod Syverson, and her 2-year-old sister fled from their home then on North Sixth Street.

Since the hospital was closed in Grand Forks, arrangements were made for Hannah's birth May 8, 1997, at Grand Forks Air Force Base. She was named after Hannah, the eighth blizzard of the winter of 1996-97. And she is one of many girls named Hannah who arrived around here 15 years ago.

Katie Delohery, who was 13 at the time of the Flood of 1997, remembers helping with sandbagging and how hard it was. She remembers fleeing from the family home on Belmont Road and seeking shelter initially in the smokeless bar --Dagwoods -- that her father, Mike Delorhey, operated on Columbia Road.


Now married and with two children, Katie is a teacher -- an intervention coordinator -- at Central High School. She says she dates herself when she tells today's high schoolers about taking refuge during the Flood of 1997. Her family ended up at Camp Grafton near Devils Lake.

To this day, she remembers vividly seeing her brother's baby picture floating on water when they went back to their home. And she will never forget the "awful smell."

Vivid memories of the Flood of 1997 hang on in letters people of Grand Forks sent out at Christmas time that year.

Nikki and Bob Seabloom had just retired and spent a relaxing vacation in Yucatan in February of 1997. She wrote friends saying that in preparation for the flood they and hundreds of others spent several weeks helping to fill sandbags.

"Although we had some difficult times this year, we were truly inspired by the outpouring of help and support our community received from all across the country. Not only material goods, but genuine, warm, caring concern came our way to shore up shaky emotional and spiritual reserves. It warmed our hearts and restored a great deal of our faith in humanity."

Ann Porter, now retired, was principal of Lincoln School at the time of the flood. In her Christmas letter she said a meeting of the Lincoln Drive neighborhood on the evening of April 16 signaled the end of the community fight against the Raging Red River of the North. On April 17, there were 27 students absent as their families packed and prepared their homes for flooding. At 12:50 p.m., the siren went off. Parents rushed to pick up their children. The National Guard blocked the streets. Staff moved books on the bottom shelf of the basement library to the top shelf. After all, if the school got any water, it would be only a few inches.

"We were in denial," she said in retrospect.

Afterward, she concluded: "Our lives will never be the same. We never believed we would be disaster victims. We are grateful for the presence of the Red Cross, The Salvation Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. We are overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of people all over the United States we don't know and will never meet."


And Francis Jacobs echoed those words when he told friends and family before Christmas 1997: "We will be forever grateful to The Salvation Army and the Red Cross. ... Those two agencies saw to it that hot meals were available to all, first at Sam's Club parking lot and then from mobile canteens in the neighborhoods. The FEMA agents we dealt with were friendly, helpful though their counterparts in Texas were at times frustrating."

"The Beatitudes are alive and well in this city, this state, this country."

The late Esther Blecha wrote to friends after the flood saying, "Our lifeline in the crisis, the Grand Forks Herald, never missed an issue. This is in spite of losing their building with 100 years-plus of archives in the fire that destroyed 11 downtown buildings. An image I'll not soon forget is of the firemen hip-deep in ice water, trying to get water pressure to fight those fires."

Along with the newspaper printed in St. Paul and flown back across the flooded river, there was heavy dependence on the radio stations of Grand Forks. They kept the messages flowing above the murky waters.

When it all was over, Blecha concluded, "There are moments of awe at what has happened here. We are grateful there were no deaths during the crisis. And we never did see an ark."

Louise Diers, whose family lost their home at 724 Cherry Street, wrote at Christmas time:

"If I could go back a year and change things so that this flood never happened, I would do it in a minute. But looking back over this year, I do have to admit there have been many blessings. It has shown us a side of ourselves and of others that we seldom take time to appreciate. It has given us the opportunity to learn to graciously accept the help and support of friends, family and even strangers -- and that's a hard thing to do. It has taught us the value of reaching out to those in need -- with dollars, materials things, shoulders to cry on, a hug, a word of encouragement -- we can never know when we will be the ones in need.

"And although it may sound trite, it has taught us that as long as we have each other, as long as we are safe and healthy, as long as we are together in mind and spirit, we will be fine. All things we lost in the flood were just that -- things. They can all be replaced."


Reach Marilyn Hagerty at or by telephone at 701-772-1055.

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