Memories flood back years later
Red River Valley prefers to look forward five years after devastating flood
By Jack Sullivan
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- It was the starkest image of the flood that swamped this city: A blackened downtown building rising above the murky floodwaters that had held firefighters at bay.
Five years later, the site is a park that is both a symbol of healing and a reminder of the wounds suffered by this city and neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn., in April 1997.
The highest flagpole stands at 54 feet, the height at which the Red River crested that month. Its base is built with bricks salvaged from a gutted building. Nearby flowers were transplanted from some of the hundreds of homes that were bought and razed to make way for the new dike that will guard against disaster.
Tourists still stop in at the Scandinavian-themed Velkommen Shop, on the block next to Memorial Park, and ask about the flood. Their visits are the few times owner Rochelle Wetsch thinks about it, even though the flood coated her store in mud and saddled her with thousands of dollars in loans.
"The pity party ended after about 10 days," she said. "You just have to go on."
The Red River, which forms most of the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, spills from its banks almost every spring, but the high water usually covers only parks and yards.
That wasn't the case in the spring of 1997, after record snows buried the region.
Chilling chain of events
A blizzard and ice storm struck during the first weekend of April, knocking out power to thousands. And the river was only beginning to rise.
Paired border towns waged their battles: Wahpeton and Breckenridge, Minn., at the river's headwaters, and Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., downsteam.
None was swamped like Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, where the river surged over and through dikes and rolled through neighborhoods April 18, 1997. More than 50,000 people fled.
Fire broke out the next day in downtown Grand Forks, where 4 feet of water covered the streets. Eleven buildings were destroyed, including the Grand Forks Herald newspaper's offices. The paper -- which won the Pulitzer Prize for its work during the disaster -- did not miss a day of publication.
Its headline after the fire: "Come Hell and High Water."
No one was killed in the fire and flood, but damage neared $2 billion in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Rebuilding sucked away savings accounts and forced residents to borrow.
These days, a $400-million dike system is in the works to guard both communities against a repeat of 1997 by protecting against a river level of 60 feet.
Some $234.5 million is for protecting the North Dakota side of the river, and $162.1 million is for the Minnesota side, said Bonnie Greenleaf, a project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.
On the Grand Forks side, about $40 million was spent to buy up flood-prone property to clear the way for a dike, which officials say will save city residents up to $15 million per year in flood insurance.
Local taxpayers' share is a moving target as the federal government decides how much it will kick in. But Grand Forks recently agreed to spend $5 million to keep the uncertainty from throwing the project off its scheduled completion date in late 2004.
Herald publisher Mike Maidenberg knew life in Grand Forks was moving back to normal when readers started complaining again. Today, the occasional irate reader will write: "'I'll never forget what you guys did in the flood, but ...' and then they'll let us have it," Maidenberg said.
The Herald was the first major business to move back downtown, into new offices in August 1998. The new building is topped with a clock tower that stands 97 feet above the ground to mark the year of the disaster.
The 2000 census counted 49,321 people in Grand Forks, a drop of about 100 since 1990. East Grand Forks lost about 1,150, to 7,500. The flood's effect is unclear. While both cities had likely grown before 1997, the Grand Forks Air Force Base also cut personnel, many of whom lived off the installation.
Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown said the rebuilt Grand Forks will be a stronger base for future growth. The mayor said he looks back with pride and astonishment at Grand Forks' progress since the day downtown burned.
"We could be a ghost town," Brown said.