North Dakota's '97 federal leaders recall push to support a flooded Grand Forks
In the weeks after those fateful days in April 1997, when Grand Forks was in ruins, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., held an important meeting in his Washington, D.C., office.
The city's top officials were all there. Mayor Pat Owens, Finance Director John Schmisek, City Engineer Ken Vein and others all huddled together to plan the city's next steps. The flood devastation was profound: damaged sewer and water systems, the water treatment plant, the hospital, schools, the downtown area — if water hit it, odds were it needed attention. The city needed help, and that said nothing yet of a new flood protection system that would be necessary to save the city from future catastrophic floods.
"We got out a giant tablet in my office, and we had it on a stand, and we started writing down what the cost of recovery would be," Conrad said. "People started out with ballparks (estimates) ... when we started going project by project, we very quickly got to well over $500 million, approaching $600 million."
It was a huge number, and nobody in Washington was ready to pay. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo, now the governor of New York, had just taken office in January. He called Conrad to offer the state $50 million in federal funding, the former senator said.
"And I said, 'Mr. Secretary, with all due respect, we don't need $50 million, we need $500 million,'" Conrad said. "I know how Washington works. The first bite of the apple is the sweetest. And if we take a check for $50 million, a lot of people go to sleep and say, 'Well, we've taken care of that problem."
The three members of North Dakota's delegation at the time — all Democrats — remember the struggle to get the very first flood recovery funds, the start of a stream of money that helped rebuild Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.
All three recall watching the disaster unfold. Former Rep. Earl Pomeroy remembers the black smoke rising over the downtown fire; the scenes from an evacuation center at Red River High School; and the temporary quarters set up for evacuees at three hangars at Grand Forks Air Force Base. He recalled a conversation he had there with two older women.
"'You know, some of these soldiers are very good-looking,'" Pomeroy recalled one of the women saying, laughing as he retold the story. "I took that as the greatest example of North Dakota's unshakable optimism."
Long road ahead
Just weeks after the levees were breached in Grand Forks, there was a summer of lobbying ahead for Grand Forks and North Dakota leaders. A disaster relief bill was swept up in partisan acrimony, with many divided over an amendment meant to avoid a government shutdown if legislators couldn't settle a budget. Local leaders didn't waste any time sharing the plight of the city. By early May, East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss and Grand Forks Mayor Owens were on Capitol Hill, lobbying legislators and trying to get them to understand the depth of the devastation back home.
"Pat Owens did a masterful job," Conrad said. "She came and went office to office with us — Sen. Dorgan, Congressman Pomeroy and I — making the case, helping people understand the dimensions and the magnitude of the challenge. And you know, Pat Owens came and sat with Stevens (Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska), and she charmed him. She was so earnest, so genuine and so transparently honest, that it had an effect on our colleagues."
Meanwhile, North Dakota's three lawmakers were hard at work themselves. Conrad recalled how he and his colleagues used images from the Grand Forks Herald at the Capitol to help show how bad things really were.
The disaster relief bill was signed by President Bill Clinton on June 12, with $500 million in federal grant funding for 35 states. In August, Cuomo visited the area to announce his department planned to give out $171.6 million in grant funding for Grand Forks, as well as grant funding for East Grand Forks that brought its running total to $43.5 million.
It was the earliest sign that Grand Forks would get much of the funding it sought. By 2007, Grand Forks and East Grand Forks had received $196 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, $224 million in federal funding for local flood protection, $258 million in disaster loans to residents and business owners from the Small Business Administration and $350 million in assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. State aid also came to the rescue.
Pomeroy, Conrad and Dorgan are quick to say they didn't do it alone. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., played a role, and Conrad said Grand Forks city staff were invaluable — offering long-running support when they were needed.
"Sometimes we'd call them on a Sunday and tell them we'd need detailed financial analysis the next day," Conrad said. "Those people belong in a Grand Forks hall of fame."
And city leaders haven't forgotten either.
"Every year, since we finished that flood control plan, every single spring, I've gotten a handwritten letter from Mayor Brown, and every spring, it says about the same thing," Dorgan said. "It says 'It's springtime in Grand Forks, and I'm thinking about what you did for our city.'"