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VIDEO: Thousands turn out to thank Clinton for role as 'heart and soul' of flood recovery efforts

Former President Bill Clinton said he was "crippled" and using crutches the last time he visited Grand Forks on April 22, 1997, to deliver a speech at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Former President Bill Clinton and former Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens
Former President Bill Clinton is cheered on by supporters following his speech in downtown Grand Forks at the flood obelisk. Former Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens and other city officials from the flood of 1997 in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks join Clinton on stage. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Former President Bill Clinton said he was "crippled" and using crutches the last time he visited Grand Forks on April 22, 1997, to deliver a speech at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

And in a way, he told about 2,000 residents of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks on Saturday, "so were you" -- much of the community was underwater that day, flooded by the Red River that climbed to a record crest of 54.35 feet.

"But it looks like we both got built back better," he said during a public event near the flood obelisk in downtown Grand Forks as residents and city officials flocked to the Greenway to see the former president back in town 15 years later.

Clinton said the scene of a flooded town with burning downtown buildings will never be forgotten by anyone alive at the time.

"It wasn't come hell or high water; it was come hell and high water," he said.


Former Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens said Clinton's 1997 visit to the devastated communities put him in the midst of evacuated residents who were "desperate," "dirty" and reduced to "refugees" as they sought shelter at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

But his commitment to help the cities rebuild, and his leadership in securing hundreds of millions of federal dollars for the recovery effort, gave residents the "strength" they needed, she said.

"He was the heart and soul that brought these cities back," Owens said.

'Your legacy'

Clinton, who was in Grand Forks to give the keynote address at the Democratic-NPL state convention Saturday afternoon, said his administration's response to the 1997 flood and other major disasters from 1992 to 2000 made him a sought-after source for disaster recovery.

He was called to help India rebuild destroyed small towns after a massive 2001 earthquake, he said, and he headed to southeast Asia after the 2004 tsunami to assist the international relief efforts.

Clinton also headed to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina's devastation in 2005, he said, and the city is now working to gain the kind of flood prevention project that has kept Grand Forks and East Grand Forks safe for the past decade.

But through it all, he said the cities' "legacy" after the 1997 flood and the lessons that have been learned from it can apply to tackling high unemployment rates, the growing federal debt and deficits and other major problems now facing America.


"If you look around the world, what works on a daily basis is what worked here after the flood -- when people work together, when they cooperate, when they put aside rhetoric and decide they're going to do one specific thing," he said.

Clinton also honored his Irish heritage during his visit to Grand Forks on St. Patrick's Day, and said the most prized greeting in the Irish language translates to "a hundred thousand welcomes."

"That's the way you made me feel today," he said. "We should welcome the challenges our country faces today. Nobody gets a free ride; no country gets a free ride.

"You just have to saddle up and do what has to be done," Clinton said. "That's what you did in Grand Forks, and that, too, is part of your legacy to America."

'Thank you'

In the years since the 1997 flood, Clinton said the federal government was able to provide a big boost to the recovery effort -- almost $500 million in federal funding for immediate relief efforts and another $171 million in community development block grants to help rebuild.

That doesn't include the $224 million the government paid toward the $410 million flood protection project, Grand Forks City Council President Hal Gershman said.

"You understood that sometimes, the burden can be too great to bear alone," Gershman said.


Gershman said Grand Forks lost 735 homes to the flood, but has since built 2,026 homes. The city lost 1,600 apartment units but built 2,100 new units, and also lost 70 public and commercial buildings that have been replaced by 360 new buildings, he said.

"Because of your caring and help, what we rebuilt here is now one of America's best small cities and I hope you will always take pride in that," he told Clinton.

Mayor Lynn Stauss said East Grand Forks suffered from the flood. But Clinton's visit in the midst of the devastation 15 years ago launched the recovery effort, he said, and the community of about 9,000 residents has since gained four new schools and a new city hall, fire hall, library and downtown business district, in addition to the flood protection system.

"From those deeds and things that happened, I like to call us the poster child of flood recovery," Stauss said. "Well, Mr. President, if we're the poster child of flood recovery, you are the poster president of flood recovery."

Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown said after a disaster, the most important words are "the words of hope" that Clinton offered to the community during his 1997 visit.

"And after recovery, the most important words are 'thank you,' so thank you," Brown said.

Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send email to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

Clinton returns to Grand Forks-East Grand Forks - March 17, 2012


View segments of former President Bill Clinton's appearance near the Red River at downtown Grand Forks: Hal Gershman, Grand Forks City Council president, 00:18; Lynn Stauss, EGF mayor, 02:20; Pat Owens, former Grand Forks mayor, 3:40; Mike Brown, Grand Forks mayor, 5:06; Clinton, 5:35.

April 22, 1997: Clinton speaks at Grand Forks Air Force Base during 1997 Flood disaster

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