PEMBINA — Hetty Walker’s home along the Red River in Pembina has survived a lot of floods.
She doesn’t know when it was built, but it was here before her husband’s ancestors moved into it in the 1870s, making it one of the older homes in the city with roots dating to the late 18th century.
It is one of the reasons people fought so hard to protect Pembina when the Red River threatened to destroy everything during the Flood of 1997.
Even after residents were ordered to evacuate and county officials told Walker, the mayor at the time, she wouldn’t get anymore help due to safety concerns, her town wasn’t ready to give up.
“If their grandparents could save the city without a dike, we can save it with a dike,” she said as she laughed. “It was pride and determination. We were going to show them we’re going to save our town. We can darn well do it.”
As Grand Forks was swallowed up by water that spring, residents along the river in other towns didn’t know what to expect, nor did they know if they would have a home to return to.
But they were determined to survive and protect their homes. If they couldn’t beat the water back, they certainly would return.
Accepting the water
Before the Red consumed Grand Forks, a neighborhood to the south was battling the rising water.
The Burke Addition is home to residents in 59 homes. That includes the Revs. John and Kathy Fick. The two moved there in 1992.
“There’s a peace about living out here,” Kathy said.
Based on talks with other residents, they thought their home would be safe from floodwaters.
But the two began to wonder as blizzard after blizzard dumped snow on the region, setting the stage for rising water. Neighbors began sandbagging in March.
“It was just odd and surreal because it was snowing, but we were trying to do some flood protection,” she said.
Thinking Grand Forks would be fine, residents from Grand Forks, National Guard members and UND students came to help in the Burke Addition. The neighbors felt confident in their sandbagging skills and thought they could win the battle, Kathy said.
“We were pretty optimistic until the crest came,” John said. “People in Grand Forks didn’t feel a threat.”
In a sense, the Burke Addition served as a preview to what Grand Forks would experience. The Ficks described National Guard vehicles driving through the neighborhood and helicopters telling people to evacuate as people tried to leave on April 19.
“It was a little bit like a crazy area, almost a war zone at times,” John said.
As it became certain they were going to lose the fight, Kathy said people opened the doors of their homes to allow the water to flow in and save the foundation.
“It was odd,” she said. “We had been fighting the water. You’re trying to hold it back, and then you realized it is coming, you have to open and accept the water.”
‘City of survival’
Walker had lived in Pembina since 1970 and had seen other floods threaten her home. Whenever floodwaters threatened the town, dikes were built up and residents prepared to sandbag in the city about 75 miles north of Grand Forks. They held meetings, established a central base and organized people for jobs.
“It didn’t start out to be a bad flood,” she said. “All of a sudden, things were getting worse.”
As April 21 approached, the situation grew dire. The river was swelling, and forecasters predicted a 59-foot crest for Pembina, a level that would swallow the town.
“The water was coming to the top, and I had visions of this old house floating down the river,” she said.
A Grand Forks Herald article detailed officials giving up hope and ordering an evacuation. Even a shaken Walker knew the city was in trouble.
“We have to go,” she said in an April 22, 1997, article.
Other communities were in danger as well. The mayor of Drayton, which is 30 miles south of Pembina, urged residents to leave.
“If the water comes the way they say it is, (the dike’s) not going to hold,” Drayton Mayor Bev Jensen said.
Others were in shock. Scott Kosmatka, a former Oslo, Minn., mayor and council member for the city located about 20 miles north of Grand Forks, saw what had happened there and in Fargo, and he wondered how bad it would get in his city.
“We were walking the levee every hour to make sure there were no weak spots,” he said, though the morale was high and fear was low.
Walker said she and others, including a group of firefighters weren’t ready to give up the fight. She remembers getting encouragement from then-Sen. Kent Conrad, who called on federal agencies to return to Pembina. The remaining residents worked together to save the city, battling night and day.
“I said we have to do the best we can,” Walker said. “When they had a feeling they could save the community, they went all out.”
Somehow, Pembina endured, without losing a single house or getting hit with sewer problems.
Walker said she was proud of her town.
“Pembina is a city of survival,” she said.
‘Have your people ready’
Some cities were lucky while others lost homes.
No one had to evacuate in Oslo, but Kosmatka said there were a few buyouts. Losing residents affects more than business, he said. There’s also an emotional connection.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Personally, you are losing those friends you had forever.”
A subdivision known as South Pembina on the Minnesota side of the river lost almost all of its homes. Drayton also lost 16 parcels to buyouts.
The Burke Addition lost only one of its 60 homes — about 40 suffered damage but were repaired and improved. Everyone moved back.
When asked why they came back, the Ficks said “it was our home.”
“It just didn’t occur to us to leave,” Kathy said. “The people out here saw it as a one-time event.”
Kosmatka said neighbors came together because they wanted to take care of each other.
“They might be in need one day, and you might be in need the next day,” he said. “You just rely on each other and do what you have to do.”
Walker said towns did get financial help from the federal government, including money to rebuild a park on the Minnesota side and to improve the city’s infrastructure. And like many communities along the Red, dikes were raised in Pembina to handle future flooding.
Long before the Red rises each spring, Pembina residents host meetings, dust off the sandbagging manual and get ready for any threat that may come their way, Walker said.
“In April, you better have your people ready,” she said. “I would fight a flood anytime in Pembina with the people who are here even now. They are proud of their town.”