Flooding dampens spirit of Christmas Apathy: In twin cities consumed by disaster, the glad trappings of the holiday season no longer feel appropriate.

December 16, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The Christmas menu may not include turkey this year, because Beth Bouley still doesn't have a kitchen. And she may serve off paper plates, "but who cares?"

Last year, presents in the Bouleys' century-old house near the Red River were "stacked to the ceiling." This year, instead of wrapped packages, she'll be giving some people cards that say, "A check has been sent in your name to the Salvation Army."

Eight months ago, the Red River and the Red Lake River roared over dikes and consumed Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. The days since the disaster have been filled with work and heartache, as well as pride in the communities' determination to recover.

But nothing seems the same, not even Christmas. And as the holiday approaches, these tired prairie cities find themselves wary.

In many households, some of the trappings no longer feel appropriate. This year, Bouley says, "GI Joe seems so irrelevant."

The Rev. William Sherman of St. Michael's Catholic Church near downtown Grand Forks says he sees "a certain listlessness" in people. And though they'll mark the holiday, "they can't get excited about it very much."

Hundreds of people still spend full days at work followed by hours of labor on their homes. Hundreds of families, whose houses were beyond salvaging, live in FEMAvilles, the dreary trailer camps, dull as the snowy landscape, set up by the Federal Emergency Management Administration

Workers in cherry-pickers have strung lights across downtown streets. But a few yards away, bulldozers still clear the rubble of historic buildings that burned even as Grand Forks was under water.

This year, Christmas "is going to be very low-key," says Sherman, who prayed the rosary as he walked along the dikes in the days before the April flood. "Nobody has any reserve of energy."

In East Grand Forks, a Minnesota city of 9,000 across the Red River and state line from Grand Forks, Mayor Lynn Stauss works from a room in his makeshift city hall: a Comfort Inn out on the highway. What used to be a hotel conference room now is a warren of cubicles for city workers.

"They say people in a disaster join together and say, 'We're going to lick this thing.' And then they say that, after six months, stress sets in," Stauss says. "And we're seeing that."

Vivian Johnson, 70, a widow who finds herself living in a tidy mobile home on the edge of Grand Forks, talks about Christmas and apologizes for weeping.

"I'll be so glad when it's over," she says. "I'll just do what I have to for the grandkids."

This year, she will be without the handmade manger scene her late husband bought her the first year they were married. She can discuss antique furniture lost in the flood matter-of-factly, but the absence of that Christmas decoration makes her cry.

"And all the beautiful linens I had, the cutwork my grandmother had made. That's all gone," Johnson says.

In the Bouley house, to which the family returned after a month in a Fargo motel, 75 miles away, and five months in a trailer, a wreath hangs over the fireplace.

But this year, the mantel will not display the red-and-green papier mache ornament made for them by Cory, their severely disabled youngest child, who died two years ago.

In the unforgiving dampness that enveloped their house, the carefully stored decoration disintegrated. Beth Bouley found its remnants and, instead of crying, cursed. Then she stopped looking for any more ornaments.

Everyone's pain

Unlike some disasters, which affect a narrow swath of a community, this flood hurt everyone. Ninety percent of the people of Grand Forks, a city of 50,000, had to be evacuated and 8,000 of 11,000 homes were damaged. In East Grand Forks, city officials say that only six of about 2,300 houses escaped damage. Schools closed for the year. Refugees found shelter with friends and strangers all over the upper Midwest.

Then people returned and found nothing ahead of them but work.

"The easy part was getting the water to go away," Bouley says. "Now, nothing's normal. And it's in your face all the time."

City officials are doing their best to keep spirits up.

East Grand Forks had a downtown tree-lighting celebration last week. Grand Forks has for the first time outlined its downtown buildings with tiny white lights.

Grand Forks Mayor Patricia Owens, who moved back into her City Hall office two weeks ago, is determinedly upbeat.

"We are coming back great," she says. "I can see the light at the end of the tunnel." But she acknowledges that some of her constituents are in despair.

"There is anger now," Owens says. "Some people don't understand that government can't bring you all the way back. We will get to a new kind of normal. And it will be better."

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