A week after a thunderstorm dumped more than 5 inches of rain on Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, city workers grappling with the storm’s aftereffects say it was one of the most intense rain events they have seen here.
The storm closed roadways, flooded basements and pushed the city’s storm and sewer systems to their breaking points.
A week later, residents on both sides of the Red River are still removing waterlogged furnishings, and Grand Forks’ water treatment plant continues to work off tens of millions of gallons of water that workers put to one side as the plant neared its capacity.
Whether talking to city officials or residents, a consensus is emerging: Last weekend’s rainstorm was an epic occurrence.
It started after a hot and muggy afternoon on Friday, Sept. 20. Early in the evening, intermittent showers began; by 8:30 p.m., WDAY meteorologist John Wheeler was warning the northern Red River Valley that heavy rains were imminent, with Greater Grand Forks directly in the storm's path. By sunrise, between 4.85 inches and 5.29 inches had fallen throughout Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Police in both cities closed so many streets they struggled to keep count.
At the home of Gary and Maren Niemeier on Glen Circle in Grand Forks, the flood left the family stranded in their home, listening to the rising floodwaters.
“It was a little like being on the Titanic,” said Gary Niemeier. “You don’t think the water is going to come up very high, so we didn’t immediately rush in and remove everything. As the water kept coming we went back down and tried to grab a few things, whatever we could. I grabbed my daughter’s clothes, I grabbed some old vinyl records. Then the water got up above three feet, and we stayed out of the basement at that point.”
Eventually, the basement egress windows broke inward from the deluge, and the basement began to fill with water. A mark that remains on a basement wall shows the water rose higher than 6 feet.
“At that point (when the window gave way) it only took about an hour for it to get up to the full 79 inches that it got up to,” Gary Niemeier said.
The electricity stayed on, but the Niemeiers had to cut power to the basement, as well as call Xcel Energy to turn off the gas. Even with the rising water, the Niemeiers said they didn’t feel they were in danger.
“We were upstairs. It was late at night,” he said. “I think the only danger for us would have been if we had waded around in the water and gotten ourselves electrocuted. We were smart enough not to do that.”
The Niemeiers live on the lowest point of Glen Circle, where water often is a problem. As the storm raged Friday night, they found they were unable to leave.
“We were absolutely stranded,” said Gary.
On Thursday, as they spoke with a reporter from the Herald, debris that was formerly in their basement was stacked on the berm at least 5 feet high.
It was a common sight throughout the week. All that trash heads to a landfill in Grand Forks, where city sanitation workers collected 209 tons of damaged property between Monday, Sept. 23, through Wednesday. Grand Forks residents themselves dropped off another 20 tons’ worth of garbage on those three days; it all ends up in a city landfill northwest of town.
In East Grand Forks, it was much of the same story, although city staff said workers do not weigh the trash they pick up. However, East Grand Forks sanitation workers collected waterlogged carpet, couches, spoiled dry wall and other basement detritus from nearly 400 homes over the past week. Numerous Eastsiders dropped off water-damaged items themselves at the city’s public works headquarters.
Grand Forks city staff said they don’t yet have a count of the number of homes that left garbage on the berms throughout the week.
Insurance agents from Greater Grand Forks – including agents from Farmers Union and Vaaler Insurance in Grand Forks and Evergreen in East Grand Forks – say they are seeing a surge in claims of everything from seepage, which may not be covered, to sump-pump failures and backed up sewers. One local agent said the low-lying areas in Grand Forks, like Veil Circle and Glen Circle, have been hit hard.
“My district manager, who’s retired, emailed me. … He hired me 15 years ago, and I told him (it’s) probably the toughest few days that I’ve had since I started,” said Aaron Dunphy, an agent at Farmers Union Insurance.
The 7.74 inches of rain that had fallen in Grand Forks as of Friday, Sept. 27, is the most ever recorded by the National Weather Service during September, and it makes September 2019 one of the 10 rainiest months on record. The monthly total could increase – there is a 70 percent chance of rain today (Sunday).
On Glen Circle, the Niemeiers managed to save a few important documents – Maren’s diploma, for example – but they lost personal and sentimental items.
“I mean, at some point when (the water) gets that much higher than it ever has, you’re like, ‘when’s it going to stop?’ We don’t have a second floor,” she said.
“It’s very surreal,” she said, adding that the family still feels shocked.
She said they are coping by cleaning.
The Herald's Joe Bowen, Adam Kurtz, Ann Bailey and Korrie Wenzel contributed to this report.