Decade after disaster, Grand Forks thrives

North Dakota city has rebounded from devastating flood, fire of '97

April 22, 2007|By Ted Gregory | Ted Gregory,Chicago Tribune

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- By virtually every barometer, this northern outpost that gave the world Cream of Wheat and a perennial college hockey powerhouse is on a run that makes real estate agents and urban planners salivate.

In the past decade, the region added almost 12 percent more jobs. All the public schools are nearly new or rehabbed. A new river greenway twice the size of New York City's Central Park is a short walk from sold-out condos being built downtown. And, this afternoon, the city is hosting a free rib dinner in its stunning, multi-use arena.

"Most Grand Forks residents would tell you that they live in the best city in this part of the world," Grand Forks Herald publisher and editor Mike Jacobs said.

But 10 years ago today, downtown Grand Forks looked like a high-plains version of Chicago after the great fire of 1871, except that downtown Grand Forks was swimming in 4 feet of silty gray river water.

On that day in 1997, the Red River crested at a record height after breaching levees and prompting the evacuation of almost 50,000 of the city's 54,000 residents. The water triggered a gas-leak fire that destroyed the downtown.

Everyone concedes that it has been a rocky trek to urban renewal, and scars remain. But Grand Forks perseveres.

"I believe it's actually a lot better," said Ryan Laffen, 21, a server at the Toasted Frog restaurant and martini bar downtown. He was a sixth-grader who evacuated to Fargo for a few months after the 1997 flood. "Downtown has pretty much become a great place to live, and the night life is amazing right now.

"But the thing that's pretty much burned in my head with that flood," he recalled, "was that I've never seen a community come together and help each other out like that. It was just unreal. Just amazing."

The 550-mile Red River is a bit of an oddity. It flows north to Canada, which contributed to the flood of 1997, when ice north of Grand Forks blocked the Red's passage.

But the more critical and frightening element that year was the blizzards, starting in mid-November, when 12 inches of snow fell on the region.

Three more storms dumped close to 2 additional feet of snow, and wind chills dropped to 80 degrees below zero, leading President Bill Clinton to declare North Dakota a federal disaster area Jan. 12.

He did it again April 7 when the spring thaw swelled the Red River to 10 feet past its flood stage. Eleven days later, with the crest surging past 51 feet and boiling over the levees, Mayor Pat Owens ordered the evacuation of about 50,000 people.

The river crested at a record 54.35 feet April 22, and water spread over miles of North Dakota's tabletop landscape. Local Air Force base hangars sheltered thousands of people. Thousands of others scattered all over the country. The University of North Dakota canceled classes for the rest of the year.

"We hadn't slept for two days," recalled Dr. Leland Lipp, a clinical psychologist who sandbagged until police came down his street with a bullhorn one night and ordered him to evacuate. "We get to this seedy hotel in Fargo. We turn on the TV, and we see the city of Grand Forks burning."

When the fire had subsided, 11 buildings across three blocks were damaged or destroyed. Overall, estimates placed the damage in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn., at $2 billion.

People returning home found ruins among mucked and rotted belongings.

More than 80 percent of the homes in Grand Forks were damaged. Trucks hauled 60,000 tons of flood debris to landfills.

But nobody drowned. Recovery arrived swiftly. City officials estimate that more than 20,000 people came to Grand Forks to help. Federal and state aid to the region reached about $1 billion.

Residents say the city would never have rebounded had it not been for the largesse of many, including the federal government, former University of North Dakota hockey player-turned-casino-mogul Ralph Engelstad, who donated $100 million for a new hockey arena, and McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc, who donated $15 million.

Nearly everyone agrees that the cornerstone of the turnaround is the 2,200-acre Grand Forks Greenway, a $409-million system of dikes and flood walls that runs for eight miles on either side of the Red River and is designed to handle a crest about 13 feet above the 1997 level.

Largely disguised as wooded, open space with golf courses for duffers, the Greenway also includes a 20-mile trail, horseshoe pits, picnic shelters, athletic fields, campgrounds and a long sledding hill along one of the levees.

Many also say Grand Forkers' stoic, almost tenacious resolve was critical.

"It's that down-to-earth heritage from the old country that came out here and established itself in a pretty rough area of this country," said Grand Forks finance director John Schmisek. "It keeps right on going through the generations. We're used to saying, `It happened. Let's do something about it.'"

Ted Gregory writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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