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The right people in the right place at the right time

So why did the Grand Cities become the poster child for disaster recovery? Luck played a role, if it's possible to be simultaneously lucky and devastated. "If you were planning a flood, 1997 was a good year to have it," said Tom Hagness, then ser...

So why did the Grand Cities become the poster child for disaster recovery?

Luck played a role, if it's possible to be simultaneously lucky and devastated.

"If you were planning a flood, 1997 was a good year to have it," said Tom Hagness, then serving on the Grand Forks City Council.

Mid-April 1997 was a slow time for national news. So when a flood with the attention-getting oddity of simultaneously being accompanied by fire hit without news competition, the media came running.

Even more attention resulted because of the face of the flood a petite, 4-foot-11 grandmother/mayor in Pat Owens. At her side was another mayor, East Grand Forks' Lynn Stauss, wearing a USA sweatshirt as his daily uniform.

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"Pat was the right person in the right place at the right time," said Robert Kweit, a UND political science professor. "She was the caring human face."

The attention and sympathy resulted in a dramatic federal response.

"There's no way a man could have gotten us the millions that Pat did," Hagness said. "She got to the heartstrings the way a man couldn't."

And Stauss was content with Owens being out front. "Pat was the image, and I was her flag," he said.

It was a prosperous time for the U.S. government, with a flush treasury. North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, as members of the Democratic Party, had heightened influence with President Clinton.

When Congress passed its initial $500 million aid package for disasters nationwide, Grand Forks alone received one-third of the money.

"It was almost like a perfect storm, in a positive way," said Mary Kweit, a UND political science professor and Robert's wife.

Another portion of the perfect storm was a well-run FEMA, led by director James Lee Witt. The 1997 FEMA was well-respected not only for its immediate response, but also for its contributions several years down the road. Witt had revitalized FEMA after its poor performance during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

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The Kweits did a study comparing the federal response between the disasters in Grand Forks and in New Orleans in 2005.

FEMA performed poorly in New Orleans, but so did the governments in achieving the needed coordination, communications and control, the Kweits reported. In Grand Forks/East Grand Forks, agency and government officials exhibited teamwork, leadership and decision-making.

"And no one worried about who got the credit," Robert Kweit said.

There was plenty of credit to spread around, some of it to Lady Luck.

"If the 1997 flood would have happened today, woe is Grand Forks," council member Hal Gershman said. "I shudder to think what would have happened. From Pat to FEMA to a lot of things, we were lucky."

Former Grand Forks City Engineer Ken Vein was part of a Grand Forks contingent that traveled to New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., in 2005 to offer advice.

"The difference in recovery between New Orleans and Biloxi is night and day," Vein said. "The difference is that Biloxi had leadership that stood up and made decisions.

"We took a lot of grief for some of our decisions in 1997, like not letting people rebuild close to the river and enforcing our rules. It would have been easy to back off and try to appease people rather than try to do what was right."

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The face of East Grand Forks city government has changed little. Stauss is still mayor and the city department heads mostly are the same.

In Grand Forks, Mike Brown is the mayor and the City Council has been downsized from 14 to seven members. Vein and John O'Leary, two of the so-called "tri-chairs" who yielded much of the power, have left city government.

Grand Forks was lucky to have Owens as "the right person in the right place at the right time" and "highly competent" tri-chairs at the initial stages of recovery, the Kweits said. They say the city also was fortunate to have Brown as "the right person in the right place at the right time" and a smaller, more active council when recovery hit second gear in 2000.

"Brown was buoyant, looking ahead and moving ahead," Mary Kweit said. "He helped people change and realize that we can dream big. His personality contributed to that. He didn't see his role as a caretaker, but instead as creating a vision."

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