Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



April 21, 1997: ‘It doesn't seem real'

It was a Monday, the start of the work week, 10 years ago today. Business, though, was anything but usual in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, epicenter of the dramatic Red River Valley flood and fire, and the site of what some authorities called...

It was a Monday, the start of the work week, 10 years ago today.

Business, though, was anything but usual in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, epicenter of the dramatic Red River Valley flood and fire, and the site of what some authorities called an urban disaster displacement on a scale then unmatched in American history.

"Come hell and high water" was the Herald's Page 1 headline, shown beside a stark photo of the flooded shell of downtown's Security Building.

Cranes moved into flooded downtown Grand Forks to knock some walls down on buildings damaged by the dramatic weekend fire. "It doesn't seem real," Deputy Fire Chief Pete O'Neill told reporters. "You want to wake up from some dream."

Finally, the Red River seemed about to crest. That, in turn, slowed the spread of floodwater across the nearly level urban landscape. It reached 54.11 feet, more than 5 feet above the 1979 record crest.


Again on this day, flood tours gave emergency officials, government leaders and news media first-hand looks at the damage in mandatory evacuation areas. As much as several dozen feet deep in places, floodwaters from the Red and Red Lake rivers spread a quilt of raw sewage, fuel and debris for several miles beyond the dikes that failed to contain it. Homes, garages, businesses, vehicles and signs stood in water, or sometimes under it.

"You'll probably hit (cars) before you see them," DNR conservation officer Tom Campbell said during a boat ride Sunday over some East Grand Forks' streets.

Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota's 7th District was one of the boat passengers who ducked under telephone and power lines en route to sights of homes tipped off their foundations. "I went to Breckenridge (Saturday), and I thought that was bad," he said. "But this is unbelievable."

On this Monday, Peterson added, "The normal disaster relief is not going to work."

Greater Grand Forks leaders learned that President Bill Clinton would come to Grand Forks Air Force Base on Tuesday to hear their concerns and tour the area in a helicopter. In Washington, Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt and other White House officials joined members of Congress to discuss Red River Valley federal aid needs.

Increasingly, flood victims sought out FEMA's toll-free number to register for disaster assistance. But few calls came from Greater Grand Forks proper, though U S West workers so far successfully kept their water-surrounded downtown service center - and the area's dial tone, 911 and other government circuits - in working order.

About 85 percent of Grand Forks' population of 52,000 had evacuated, either by mandate or voluntarily. Only about 250 of East Grand Forks' nearly 9,000 residents remained.

"What I'm afraid of," said the Rev. William Sherman of Grand Forks' flooded St. Michael's Catholic Church, "is that once reality sets in, there will be anguish and anxiety."


On this day, Greater Grand Forks' public schools and the East Side's parochial Sacred Heart School canceled the remainder of their school years for teachers, staff and some 12,000 displaced students. Officials said all but one of the schools within the two city limits had some type of flood damage.

Grand Forks County Commissioners met in Larimore, about 30 miles west of Grand Forks, to begin moving the base for county services, primarily into the town's Masonic Temple.

A few businesses remained open on the flood-free edges of Greater Grand Forks, including a couple of hotels, the temporary quarters for officials from two cities and many emergency personnel.

"There's nothing to come back to now," said East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss, who helped set up a temporary City Hall at the Comfort Inn on U.S. Highway 2. "We have to, basically, rebuild our community."

The National Guard and other agencies still fought floodwaters at the East Side's water treatment plant, police station, cellular communications tower and other essential areas.

In west Grand Forks, at a camouflaged tanker parked near the Ramada Inn, remaining residents filled jugs with fresh water from 2,000-gallon tanks, dubbed "water buffaloes." The tanks contained water from the Turtle River and area reservoirs, purified for three hours with heavy chlorination by the Guard's reverse-osmosis water purification unit.

On Grand Forks' southwest side, 10 postal workers - about 75 fewer than normal - sorted mail for shipment to northeast North Dakota post offices. Walk-up mail service was planned to start within a day or two at Grand Forks Air Force Base, home to more than 3,000 evacuees, and Crookston, where more than 4,000 evacuees either registered or sought shelter. "We're not accepting any change of address for evacuees yet," a Fargo postal official said.

Evacuees had spread to shelters set up by communities throughout the region, or they accepted one of thousands of offers from complete strangers who opened up their homes out of compassion and a feeling of helplessness.


Fargo and Moorhead was a detour-obstructed destination for thousands, despite those cities' own recent fierce flood battles. "We got out with very little. Not even a suitcase," said Jean Haus, who left their 24th Avenue South home near the river. She and her daughter, Judy, went to the Fargo Target to take advantage of a 20-percent discount for evacuees.

New elevated crest forecasts on this day added to the stress of residents in downstream Red River towns Pembina and Drayton, N.D., and nearby rural residents north of Greater Grand Forks. The National Weather Service's revisions for crests, expected within two to four days, leapfrogged one or more feet over the cities' urgent dike preparations.

But closer to Grand Forks, Oslo, Minn.,'s 31-year-old clay ring dike was holding. Floodwaters prevented virtually all but National Guard travel in and out of town, but farmer/volunteer firefighter Orin Knutson and farmhand Riley Farder brought two crates of mail from the Alvarado, Minn., post office, one day after hauling in a 10-day supply of groceries.

Said Gary Durand, head of Marshall County's emergency services: "They're like a sovereign nation or something."

What To Read Next
Nonprofit hospitals are required to provide free or discounted care, also known as charity care; yet eligibility and application requirements vary across hospitals. Could you qualify? We found out.
Crisis pregnancy centers received almost $3 million in taxpayer funds in 2022. Soon, sharing only medically accurate information could be a prerequisite for funding.
The Grand Forks Blue Zones Project, which hopes to make Grand Forks not just a healthier city but a closer community, is hosting an event on Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Empire Arts Center from 3-5 p.m.
A bill being considered by the North Dakota Legislature would require infertility treatment for public employees — a step that could lead to requiring private insurance for the costly treatments.