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20 years later: The Flood of 1997 — a ride both blurry and vivid

20 years later: The Flood of 1997 — a ride both blurry and vivid

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gfh fire retardant

A fire-bombing plane, usually used in forest fires, drops fire retardant on the downtown blaze. The electrical fire in one of the oldest office buildings in downtown Grand Forks , the Security Building, was reported at 4:15 p.m. and was still being fought twenty-two hours later. 

GRAND FORKS — The National Guard drove down the flooded street early that morning blaring evacuation orders, and the next month flew by in a blur that remains amazingly vivid 20 years later.

I evacuated my house the morning of April 19, 1997, and didn’t stay there again until a month — to the day — later.

I had a house to go home to after the water receded, so I was one of the lucky ones.

“Blur” and “vivid” aren’t words that normally appear in the same sentence, I know, but they work in the context of the Flood of 1997, an epic natural disaster if ever there was one.

Those days before and after the flood were a blur, but those of us who were there will never forget them.

I’ve been riding that River of Memories the past few weeks working on stories commemorating the 20th anniversary of the flood.

I was a Grand Forks Herald copy editor in April 1997, and like everyone else in the newsroom, I was immersed in flood coverage that spring as snow from one of the worst winters in recent memory started to melt, and the Red River inched toward the top of its banks.

Blizzard Hannah, which unleashed its wrath during three days beginning April 4, 1997, was the beginning of the end. Like other residents, I knew the flooding was going to be bad, but I couldn’t have comprehended the disaster that would transpire two weeks later.

All hands on deck

That Friday — April 18, 1997 — everyone in the Herald newsroom who wasn’t fighting to save their homes either was working in the office or out and about covering the flood for the next day’s paper. Little did we know the April 19 edition of the Grand Forks Herald would be the last to roll off the presses in the downtown building.

Floodwaters stopped the press run in midstream shortly before midnight April 18, and fire would destroy the newsroom portion of the Herald building and all of its archives less than 24 hours later.

Amid the blur, that recollection is vivid.

I knew the battle was lost that Friday afternoon when I took a break to help a friend in East Grand Forks haul some valuables from his basement.

The futility of it all was apparent driving across the Kennedy Bridge. Residents of the Sherlock Park neighborhood were frantically sandbagging to save homes that were far below the tops of the dikes.

I’ll never forget the image of many of those homes submerged to their rooftops a day later.

Water was bubbling through the storm sewers and oozing up the front lawn of my Grand Forks house between the Red River and Washington Street about 6 p.m. when I drove home for a short break to check on things.

The street was flooded, but the alley still was dry when I headed back to work.

I went home before floodwaters stopped the Herald press run that night and spent the next few hours in the basement hauling valuables and keepsakes I didn’t want flooded to higher ground.

A lifelong music junkie, I almost left the vast collection of vinyl record albums I had stored in a large basement cabinet. But then I came to my senses and decided Pink Floyd and Neil Young would be easier to deal with dry than waterlogged and destroyed.

Hauling the collection upstairs took several trips, but the effort in hindsight was time well spent.

Exhausted and running on stress, adrenaline and caffeine, I tried sleeping, but that didn’t work.

I was too revved up to sleep.

On high alert

The robins were in full voice when the evacuation order came early that morning. I grabbed a few clothes, hopped in the truck and headed for a friend’s house. Her neighborhood near 24th Avenue South and Columbia Road wasn’t flooded, but we decided to leave town and drive to her parents’ place near Manvel.

Beyond that, we had no plan.

I was trying yet again to grab some shuteye when Mike Jacobs, the Herald’s editor during the flood and recovery, came on the radio asking available Herald staffers to meet at UND and map out the next day’s newspaper coverage.

Plans were being made to print the Herald at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a sister paper at the time, and have it trucked back to the valley.

We were gathered in the Memorial Union when news came that fire had broken out downtown. Water was rushing through the streets, and the rising water meant even the UND campus eventually would be flooded.

Herald staff using UND computers produced the next day’s paper on campus before relocating to the Manvel school the next day.

I was part of a small Herald crew sent to St. Paul to work on editing copy and laying out pages. So, as downtown burned and water inundated homes and businesses, I found myself on a chartered plane with photographer Chuck Kimmerle and copy editor Andy Braford.

As we flew over downtown Grand Forks on a beautiful April evening, we saw flames rising from buildings surrounded by shimmering water.

Kimmerle’s photo of an airplane dropping red fire retardant in a futile effort to douse the flames stands as one of the iconic images of the flood and its aftermath.

Against all odds

Everything seemed futile that April day.

Knight Ridder Inc., the Herald’s owner at the time, had gathered a crew of staff from St. Paul and beyond to help us get a newspaper out the door against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Herald staff back in Grand Forks filed stories and photos electronically, and we sent the last page to print about 3 a.m. April 20. The Sunday edition of the Herald was on its way to flood-stricken evacuees thirsty for any information they could get a few hours later.

“A city scarred,” the front-page headline read.

I’d started the day by getting evacuated from my house and ended the day in downtown St. Paul. Along the way, I’d gotten an aerial view of Grand Forks in flames and kept it all together enough to help put out one of the most historic editions of the Herald ever printed.

I’d spend the next month living in St. Paul as a copy editor on the Herald’s “Refugee Bureau,” as it affectionately was dubbed, taking only a couple of days off for quick trips back to Grand Forks to check on my house once the neighborhood became accessible.

Like so many others, I considered myself lucky because I “only” had a basement full of water.

I never could have imagined the flood’s carnage — or the comeback that has occurred in both cities since those disastrous days in 1997.

It’s been quite a ride, a ride both blurry and vivid.

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