The winter of 1996/97 was brutal in the upper midwest. They endured eight blizzards. In Grand Forks, ND, The Herald newspaper named them. The last one was Hannah. It hit in early April. The river that flows through Grand Forks is called The Red River of the North to differentiate it from the other Red River, in Texas. The North Dakota Red flows north, toward Canada. Eight blizzards left the northern reaches of the Red locked in ice. There was nowhere for the water to go as the lands along the southern Red thawed out. Nowhere for the river to go, that is, except for into Grand Forks, which it did. Really did.
Meanwhile, I was happily doing my thing in Cleveland, OH. On NPR one day I heard a matter of fact news story about the flooding in Grand Forks, which was getting worse by the minute. Though it was a newscast, told without emotion, there was a voice in my heart, my head, that said “Go.” So I called up somebody in Grand Forks and was given a number for World Vision, who had a large presence in the area. They told me to call back in a week or so but that they would definitely need help.
Only one other person from my church wanted to go with me. His name was Bill. We went in, I believe, June. It was shocking and depressing to see it. But it was also inspiring to see the hundreds of volunteers who were sleeping on disaster relief cots in a field house on the North Dakota University campus. Hundreds of people from all over the country. It was a good feeling.
In restaurants, waiters and waitresses would thank us if they recognized that we were volunteers. I will never forget one house in particular. This old woman had stayed through the flood, moving all her important posessions to the second floor. In one upstairs room, her whole life in pictures was spread out over every piece of furniture. There was no way that house was going to be saved but she did save those pictures. It still makes me cry.
Bill and I were so deeply affected by our week in Grand Forks that we put together a presentation when we got home and asked for money from the church to fund a second trip. In August of 1997 we went back for a second trip with ten people. Clearly Grand Forks had made progress in the two months since our first week, but it was still awful.
It’s not awful anymore. Ten years and one month later, today, I visited Grand Forks again and was delighted at what I saw.
The Grand Forks Herald brought the images of the flood and its aftermath to the world. Those images included pictures of the destruction of its own building. What happened was that, somehow due to the flood, a fire began in a nearby building. Water was everywhere, a few feet deep, but the fire company couldn’t get water to the buidings . The Grand Forks Herald built its new building (left) on the same ground as its old one.
Here’s a video of the fire.Here’s what the area looked like the morning after the fire:
Here’s that same corner now:
The area along both sides of the river has been transformed and renewed. This space is now called The Greenway. It’s not finished but it’s already beautiful.
And all along the border of the greenway is a new dike system and floodwall, so perhaps the disaster of 1997 will not be repeated:
Here is an excellent slideshow at NPR commemorating ten years since the flood.
Thanks to Julie for recommending I visit Grand Forks again. I had pretty much decided not to, but she talked me into it. It was a healing experience.