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April 18, 1997: Too much water

The sky was blue and sunny, the air April fresh. The sounds of chirping birds further signaled a pleasant day, perhaps the nicest since the end of a miserable winter.

The sky was blue and sunny, the air April fresh. The sounds of chirping birds further signaled a pleasant day, perhaps the nicest since the end of a miserable winter.

"See?" Patty Novacek said, displaying the ladybug that settled on her wrist. "This is a good sign. Spring."

Good signs proved scarce 10 years ago today, a Friday, in Greater Grand Forks.

Nearby, National Guard troops waded through floodwaters, joining forces with sandbag volunteers to rebuild broken dikes near East Grand Forks' Folson Court, on the Point. The home of Novacek's sister no longer was dry, and neither were her sister's eyes.

"We fought this thing. We fought it all night long," Mary Anderson said, fighting tears. "We fought and fought and fought."

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Greater Grand Forks fought and fought, yet this day was dominated by major flood battles lost to the unflinching Red and Red Lake rivers.

The next day, Saturday, appeared likely to determine who might win the flood war.

Lincoln's fall

As this Friday began, the Red River flood climbed past 51 feet high - more than 2 feet beyond 1979's flood of 20th-century record. Its rise showed little sign of slowing. The National Weather Service, which adjusted crest forecasts upward all week, revised it again by late morning: 53 feet, either late on this day or Saturday.

The week started with Grand Forks and East Grand Forks having built their dikes up to about 52 feet, 3 feet above the estimated 49-foot crest. When the estimates kept moving up, the communities tried to keep distance between the river and dike tops. They couldn't.

On this morning, Grand Forks City Engineer Ken Vein warned residents that overland flooding could affect virtually all of the city if dikes fail.

Hours earlier, boils were discovered in the Lincoln dikes. Soon, Mayor Pat Owens ordered evacuation of the low-lying Lincoln neighborhood, setting off the first of multiple siren wails heard in the two cities this day. The sun had not yet risen.

A morning dike breach near Belmont Road and Lincoln Drive allowed floodwaters to roll into the Lincoln neighborhood from the southwest. Then, after spotters report a Lincoln dike break around 2 p.m., the rising Red poured in waterfall fashion over a lengthy stretch of dike near Lanark Avenue. By 4 p.m., Lincoln floodwaters were the same height as the river. The damage: about 300 homes, some to the roofs.

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In East Grand Forks, sirens sounded minutes after noon as people suddenly rushed from homes and yards along Folson Court. Floodwaters breaking through dikes damaged about two dozen homes. A new dike effort prevents further damage.

But about 3:30 p.m., an East Grand Forks dike broke southeast of the Louis Murray Bridge over the Red Lake River. About 9 feet of floodwater surged through, rocking the bridge and slowly overtaking the Point neighborhood. Sirens followed about 4:20 p.m., as the city called for evacuations from the Point and downtown. The bridge closed to all but emergency vehicles.

"Make up your mind," Mayor Lynn Stauss told people living south of Crestwood School. "For your own safety, I have to say you should leave tonight."

Point residents quickly were surrounded; an earthen dike blocked Bygland Road, and Red floodwaters backed up into the Hartsville Coulee south of town claimed the last exit. Suddenly, helicopters and high-riding emergency vehicles were the only ways out.

East Side flood fights continued into the night. About 11 p.m., an East Side dike north of the Kennedy gave way, allowing water to pour into the near-empty Sherlock Park neighborhood via the U.S. Highway 2 underpass.

Evacuations

In Grand Forks, Owens also had ordered early morning evacuations of the Riverside and Central neighborhoods. More than 100 residents of Valley Memorial Home-Almonte were moved to Valley Eldercare, United Hospital and Kelly Elementary School.

People moved out of the low-lying Belmont Road neighborhood between 13th and 17th avenues south. Long sandbag volunteer lines were seen at several locations, including the bike path on North Third Street. Neighborhood dike work continued at Belmont Coulee, where water was backing up from the Red; at Rolling Hills Circle and at many other locations.

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Some homeowners in evacuated areas used city-issued passes to return, get some more belongings and look at a life they might be leaving behind. "This might be it," Renae Arends said after returning to her Riverside home. "I might not have a house to come back to."

The English Coulee was flooding into the Boyd Drive and Sixth Avenue North areas by afternoon. The Red backed into the coulee from the north, a predicament not prevented by the new coulee flood diversion west of town.

Many reporters covering the flood for national media outlets quickly turned Grand Forks' Owens into the primary face and voice of the flood fight. Some of the interviews she gave aired live. "Say a lot of prayers for us," Owens told a Canadian reporter in late morning.

After 5 p.m., more Grand Forks sirens. The Riverside dike was leaking and possibly ready to give way. A secondary dike was built as a secondary line of defense. Another secondary dike was built on Belmont Road; nearby, the city urged residents of Olson Drive, Elmwood Drive and 27th Avenue South to spend the night elsewhere because of dike dangers.

At 8 p.m., the weather service revised the crest again: 54 feet, sometime Saturday night. Before 9 p.m., the Central Park neighborhood and some south downtown businesses were told to evacuate as floodwaters pushed up into the streets through storm sewers.

By 10 p.m, some areas south of downtown's railroad tracks were too flooded to leave by vehicle, prompting some evacuations in a city dump truck and National Guard humvees. The city's Emergency Operations Center moved from the water-threatened police building to UND.

More than 3,000 people - perhaps a lot more - already had evacuated in Grand Forks alone, officials estimated. Some stayed at shelters established in the new National Guard Armory and Red River High School; Grand Forks Air Force Base awaited more evacuees.

"Absolutely do not sleep in your basements anywhere in Grand Forks tonight," Emergency Operations director Jim Campbell cautioned remaining residents.

As midnight neared, the Red approached 53 feet, and the Kennedy Bridge - the last road link between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks - suddenly was close to closing.

The article includes material from Herald and wire service reports.

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