Grand Forks looks back on its 'flood of the century'

The city of Grand Forks, N.D. is launching a series of events this week to commemorate 1997's "flood of the century," calling it a time to remember the city's greatest challenge and honour its recovery.

The city of Grand Forks, N.D., is launching a series of events this week to commemoratethe flood that devastated the city in 1997, calling it a time to remember the city's greatest challenge and honour its recovery.

City residents will come together for speeches, dedications, a concert and a cookoutto remember the past and celebrate the ways they have rallied to rebuild in the decade since the Red River rose high enough to destroy much of the city.

On the morning of April 19, 1997, virtually every one of Grand Forks' 60,000 residents had been evacuated from their homes as rising flood waters claimed the city.

The day before, dikes around the city had begun to leak badly.Within hours, almost every home and business was damaged in metre-deep water.

"They told me, 'Mayor, you have to start evacuating the city,'" says former Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens, remembering the moment the city raised the white flag."I told them to take everybody off the dikes that morning."

Atabout 4 p.m. the same day, the unthinkable happened: Fire broke out in the downtown.Amid the rising water, North Dakotans watched in horror as eleven historic buildings went up in smoke.

Economic recovery

When the fire was finally extinguished and the water receded, the cleanup and rebuilding began.

Owens points to the Alerus Centre and Ralph Englestadt Arena as economic highlights.

The area destroyed by fire was turned into green space named Memorial Park, but today, the site is being given a new use, as people return to the city's revitalizing downtown.

"Ten years ago, downtown wasn't a really great place. It had really fallen into a state of decay. People didn't want to live downtown," said city spokesman Kevin Dean.

"Now they do. As a result, we took the area where Memorial Park was and we've now built elite brownstone condominiums, and every single one of them was purchased before they even turned a spadeful of dirt."

Mike Jacobs, who runs the Grand Forks Herald newspaper— now from a new office tower in the downtown— never imagined this kind of rebirth could take place in Grand Forks.But he admits it came with a price.

"Just about everybody in Grand Forks has more debt than they would have had without the flood," he said. "Just about everybody has a story of loss. Just about everybody has a story of survival."

Memories still vivid

Greg Schneider remembers the flood waters running through his downtown store, washing away $500,000 worth of inventory.

"The feeling was kind of an emptiness. Not knowing, just not knowing what was going to happen," he said.

But Schneider rebuilt.Today, his business is thriving in a large new building near Columbia Mall.He's in debt, but refuses to look back.

"It was probably inevitable that we needed to be out here in a high-traffic area anyway," he said."The flood forced our hand."

For others, moving on has been more difficult. Paul Nelson's family ran a music business form a building downtown that was torn down after the flood.

The memories of the happy hours he spent at the store with his dad are still vivid.

"Every time I go there, I drive by and I look up and I can see the old sign hanging off the front andI know right where the gumball machinewas when you walked in the front door," he said.

"Without a doubt, I don't think I've been down there since and not thought about it."

'Proud of Grand Forks'

Despite the losses, Jacobs believes that in many ways, Grand Forks is better off because of the flood.

"I'm very proud of Grand Forks," he said. "When I think what could have happened— what maybe should have happened, given the extent of the devastation— I'm very proud that we've been able to recover the way we have."

This year, Grand Forks' new flood protection system will be complete. Its new earth dikes, concrete walls and pumping stations should protect the city from another 'flood of the century.'

But most people in Grand Forks know there's no guarantees.

"You can never be over-prepared," says Owens."No matter what, don't take anything for granted. Be alert and ready for anything."