PREPARING FOR THE WORST
If Noah had faced the plight of Grand Forks, North Dakota, would he have had as much faith as he did in days
of yesteryear? Yes, the entire city seemed doomed to disappear beneath a wall of water, but the people clung to what little
hope they could still muster.
"This is your mayor, Pat Owens, asking for your help," the smiling but tired-looking woman on the TV said.
"We have stood together through blizzards, ice storms, and now we are preparing to do battle for the worst flood of the century."
It was hard to imagine how any able-bodied person could resist her plea: "We need sandbaggers immediately."
And they came—in droves. From the Grand Forks Air Force Base, from the National Guard, from neighboring
communities, from the high schools, from the University of North Dakota.
Surely, with all this manpower flooding the city, we would be safe from the water.
"The dikes are being raised to protect us to 52 feet," the radio blared, then added reassuringly, "The predicted
crest is still 51 feet."
Huge military trucks roared up and down the streets, some loaded with dark gray clay and others with white
plastic sandbags. They honked like a goose with a cold as they wove their way in and out of traffic.
It was Thursday, April 17, 1997. The people of Grand Forks, North Dakota were optimistically realistic as
they prepared for the worst—and hoped for the best.
Certain areas of town were more prone to flooding than others. Those who had lived here through the flood
of 1979 could hardly imagine that it could get worse than that. The streets had been filled with water, businesses were closed,
and in house after house you could hear the whir of the sump pumps fighting to keep basements dry.
At Mission Socorro, a local charity where I worked, the phone HELP line rang day and night. People who lived
in low-lying areas were hurrying to pack their most treasured belongings in boxes.
"Where can I take them so they won’t get wet?" people asked, one after another. "All of the storage
places are full."
The hunt continued for barns, steel sheds and any place outside the flood plain to keep people’s possessions
"Be sure to label everything good," they were instructed. "It will be a mess to try to sort everything once
you can take it back home."
The thought never crossed people’s minds that there might not be any homes for them to return to. If
they could just stay safe until the water receded…
On Thursday afternoon, I confided to a doctor friend that I was really getting tired. "I’ll pray for
you," he said. Then, as a way of further assurance, he said, "It isn’t going to flood. I finally hired a professional
to install a permanent sump pump in our basement drain. It wouldn’t dare flood now!" I kidded him about thinking he
was God—all knowing—and we laughed about it, knowing that the likelihood of his little sump pump doing much good
was pretty far-fetched.
During a typical North Dakota winter, the main topic of conversation is the weather. This winter had been
far from typical. There had been eight blizzards—the worst on record. The snowfall had reached record proportions—over
100 inches. Then came "Hard-Hearted Hannah"…the ice storm that was without equal. It had resulted in power outages that
lasted for weeks in many small surrounding communities.
Now, with all of this, people were asking, "How much more can we take?" and, "Has God forgotten us?"
By Thursday night, people were lulled into sleep by the imaginary sound of water—everywhere. Regular
television programming was interrupted periodically to bring updates on the level of the river: 51 feet, 51.4 feet, 51.9 feet…it
was rising faster and faster. The trucks sped by, as police cars crawled through the streets, warning people on their blow
horns to clear the way for the workers.
People in the most at-risk parts of town hired moving vans to tote their furniture to safety.
Judy DeMers, a state legislator and associate dean at the University of North Dakota Medical School, was
preparing for a business trip to Detroit, Michigan.
"I think I will pack two suitcases," she said, "just in case I can’t get in the house when I come back."
She lived in the Riverside Park area, on the northeast end of town. Her basement had nearly four feet of
water during the 1979 flood. "It was nothing I couldn’t handle," she said, "but I am trying to get most of the stuff
upstairs, just in case."
I suggested that she leave the extra suitcase with a friend so she wouldn’t have to lug it all over
town in Detroit.
"Brilliant!" she said. "I can leave it at the office. I know it will be safe there. The water can’t
get up to second floor."
Many of the houses in that part of town were old, historic homes. So were the ones on Reeves Drive and the
north end of Belmont Road. And downtown, which was primarily early businesses, was "the heart of Grand Forks." These areas
would probably be the hardest hit.
And Lincoln Park, just off the golf course, was sure to suffer heavy damage. There had been a great deal
of discussion over the years about building a higher, permanent dike. The opposition had raged, with many of the stately residences
on the south end of Belmont Road arguing that they didn’t want to lose their riverfront view.
Now a clay dike, nearly eight feet high, blocked their view of anything that was even vaguely picturesque,
as it stretched across Belmont Road at 13th Avenue South and another one at 17th Avenue South. It was
ugly, dark and damp, but nobody argued now about whether it should be there or not.
Dr. John LaLonde, a good family friend and the doctor who had performed surgery on both my husband Ivan and
me, lived on Belmont Road.
"We are on the safe side of the dike," he said, trying to sound confident. "We should be okay." Then, after
a long pause, he said, "I don’t know where we would go if it ever got over here."
"I can’t talk now," Linda Norris, who lived along the "low section" of Belmont in a beautiful big two-story
house, said. "I’m packing." I didn’t argue; I wished I could go help her. Waves of guilt swept over me, as I thought
that we lived more than three miles from the river, so we didn’t have to worry. The water had never gotten that far.
We were safe; I was sure of it.
"The entire city should be on the alert during the night," Milo Smith warned on the ten o’clock news.
"The river has now reached 52 feet." He panned to a scene of men and women, young and old, passing sandbags from one person
to another, moving as fast as they could, after hours of straining to protect the city they loved.
"I am from Grafton," one college student said, "but I feel like this is my home now. I can’t leave
until I know I have done everything I can to help."
This echoed the sentiments of people who had come from up and down the Red River, and from east and west.
"East Grand Forks has begun to evacuate people," they announced on the news. "The point bridge has already
The point in East Grand Forks was facing double jeopardy. Not only did the Red River flow through,
but that was where the fork in the river was, where the Red Lake River joined forces with the Red River.
Cars had already left for Crookston, 25 miles to the east in Minnesota. The water was creeping up onto the
foundations of the houses. It was quickly becoming too dangerous for self-evacuation. Two sisters, both in their eighties,
who lived together, were taken by helicopter from their home to Crookston.
"Don’t forget our canes!" one of them yelled as they climbed into the seats. As the propellers whirred
and lifted them into the air, they stared downward at the streets, which resembled long, lithe slithering snakes. What an
experience—to live more than eighty years and then get to fly through the air! Was the thrill of the moment enough to
compensate for the possible loss of a lifetime of safety in their own home? As they watched the water flow below, the fear
of the unknown was overwhelming.
Would life in Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, ever be normal again? Would there
be anything left?
"A new river reading has just come in over the wire," the newscaster announced. "It is now at 52.2 feet, and still rising.
And that’s the news. Have a good night!"