Flood Victims Finding `So Much Has Been Lost'

Rising Red River Robs Residents Of N.d. City

April 22, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Sitting in the emergency shelter, knowing that everything back home might be lost to the Red River flood, Deb Storey looked at her hand, gasped and began to cry.

She had forgotten to wear the wedding ring her mother had left to her.

"So much has been lost," said Ms. Storey, 40, a bank employee, "and we don't know where it's going to end."

The Red River crested at about 54 feet yesterday, nearly twice the flood stage. Officials said that it will be at least three weeks before residents can return. And when they do, many of the city's 50,000 people will face crushing losses. As much as 90 percent of the city was inundated.

"I saw our house on the TV," said Millie Anderson, who runs a day care center. She has been staying with her family in a camper 10 miles outside of town. "The water was up to the deck" on the second floor.

In some cases, all that could be seen of houses were the shingles at roof peaks. Water had risen to levels of 15 feet and more.

President Clinton announced plans yesterday to visit the ravaged area today. Virtually all business and ordinary affairs have come to a halt.

Despite mandatory evacuation orders in Grand Forks and in East Grand Forks, across the river in Minnesota, a small number of residents were said to be staying behind.

Yesterday, rescue workers removed a blind man from his home, where water was crashing through the front door. They also picked up a 96-year-old woman, who was apparently unaware of the dangers.

Officials said yesterday that it would be impossible to precisely measure the damage until the waters recede substantially, which could take weeks.

Power has been cut off in most of the city to lessen the chances of fire. Three houses were burned overnight. Over the weekend, flames destroyed at least six buildings downtown and seriously damaged at least 11 others. Crews began tearing down some of the remaining hulks yesterday.

The floodwaters also shut down the water treatment plant, leaving no water service for the estimated 5,000 residents who remained.

"The toilet part is the worst," said Richard George. "We just flush it with melted snow. We were melting snow on the barbecue grill."

The city also supplied most of the water for Grand Forks Air Force Base, where more than 2,000 of the city's refugees were staying.

The base still had a reserve of clean water, was pumping some water from a nearby small town and planned to bring in 20 large tanker trucks, said a spokesman, Capt. Byron Spencer.

In this rugged stretch of the Northern Plains, which contains some of America's last frontier land, settled by pioneers in the 1880s, people are accustomed to nasty weather, but nothing like this.

During the winter, record snowfall accumulated, keeping children out of school for several weeks. Then came the rising floodwaters, which Dakotans and their neighbors in Minnesota had been battling to contain for weeks, building a towering wall of sandbags. The water started seeping through the dikes Friday, and before long, sirens were blaring, warning people to flee for higher ground.

The flood from the melting of the winter's snowpack was flowing slowly toward the U.S.-Canada border yesterday, where the U.S. Customs Service said its North Dakota border crossings at Pembina and Neche would be closed during the night. Pembina, on Interstate 29, is right along the river. Some Neche roads are flooded.

Several emergency shelters have been opened, including the largest, at a hangar at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, where there were diapers, cribs and telephone banks that people could use to call anywhere without charge.

A message board listed the phone numbers and addresses of people in other towns, some as far away as Canada, who offered to welcome refugees into their homes. And there were messages like one reading, "Tom Anderson -- call your mother."

"We've got room for a family of 6, 10, whatever," said a Minnesota farmer who had called a local radio station. "Smokers, pets, it doesn't matter. And we've got horses, if they feel like saddling up and riding. Call collect. I'll come and get them."

People shared stories, and patted one another on the back. Hurbert Garceau Jr., a retired milkman, took a call the other day from his son, also named Hurbert, who works in construction.

"He was just crying and crying, saying `Dad -- the house is gone,' " said the elder Garceau, fighting back tears. "He's 45, but it's like he's 6 years old again, and he's hurting. But there's nothing you can do."

Almost everyone in the Red River Valley says they are grateful that nobody has died. And they say furniture can be replaced and houses can be rebuilt.

How to help

Salvation Army: Accepting donations by credit card at 1-800-SAL-ARMY (1-800-725-2769) and giving information on how to donate supplies. Checks marked "Flood Relief" can be sent to 2300 Freeway Blvd., Minneapolis, Minn. 55430, or any local Salvation Army office.

Red Cross: Accepting credit card donations at 1-800-HELP-NOW (1-800-435-7669). Checks made out to the "American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund" may be sent to P.O. Box. 28326, Oakdale, Minn., 55128-0326, or any local Red Cross chapter.

The Minnesota State Emergency Operations Center was compiling a volunteer reserve list at (612) 297-1304.

Pub Date: 4/22/97

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