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New special collection at UND offers 72 hours of emergency calls during 1997 flood

Curt Hanson didn't have a personal story from the flood of 1997, which is why he wanted to help share the flood's history with those who did. Hanson, head of the Special Collections department at UND's Chester Fritz Library, revealed a new websit...

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Phil and Judy Yagla listen to 911 calls from the 1997 Red River flood on Wednesday, May 06, 2015, in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

Curt Hanson didn't have a personal story from the flood of 1997, which is why he wanted to help share the flood's history with those who did.

Hanson, head of the Special Collections department at UND's Chester Fritz Library, revealed a new website Wednesday afternoon that includes 2,014 dated and numbered 911 calls from 4:30 a.m. April 18 to 1:15 a.m. April 19, 1997.

"This is history directly as it unfolded," Hanson said.

The calls, which are available at library.und.edu/digital/flood-calls/ , include calls both coming into and leaving dispatch as people began evacuating the city.

To a room of about 20 people at the Chester Fritz Library, Hanson spoke about the collection and the number of flood artifacts set up around the room, such as cans of drinking water donated by Anheuser-Busch.

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Hanson then played his favorite call of the collection: one from 9:16 a.m. on April 18, 1997.

An operator called her husband and told him there was a plan to evacuate to the Air Force Base. She told him to bring their wedding pictures, other important items and "a change of underclothes."

While calls like that one showed the human emotions affected by the flood, others showed how the normalcy of life can continue during disaster.

One prankster called in making animal noises and asking for "Billy" before the dispatcher told him to find something better to do, like sandbagging.

Hanson said the collection of calls includes a large number of selfless people calling into volunteer their time or resources. He also noted that the work of the dispatchers was tremendous.

"In the 2,000 calls that are there, I never once heard them lose their calm," Hanson said of the dispatchers. "During one of the most stressful days in the history of Grand Forks, the dispatchers were amazing."

Becky Ault, director of Grand Forks Public Safety Answering Point, praised the efforts of the dispatchers from 1997 and was glad the new collection could capture their work.

"We're hearing history and it's really remarkable," she said.

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Grand Forks City Council President Dana Sande spoke prior to the presentation of the calls, praising the value of the collection to the community.

"We're very fortunate that we were able to save some of the personal experiences," he said. "It's so special and it provides a great tool for research in the future."

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