Statistics certainly tell part of this story: $5 billion in damages, 53,000 people evacuated, a river 26 feet above flood stage, 95 percent of homes affected.
But the voices of those who survived, responded, recovered, and ultimately built back East Grand Forks, Minnesota, give a much clearer picture of just how significant the 1997 flood was along the Red River of the North:
Stephanie Larson, Homeowner, East Grand Forks, Minnesota
Stephanie Larson, her husband and three young kids lived in Sherlock Park, an area that was underwater within hours after floodwaters started to invade the city in April 1997.
Larson’s husband had been working flood relief day and night, sandbagging against a river taking siege against the small town of 9,000 people.
“The realization finally hit, ‘we’ve lost it.’ So we got everyone in the car and evacuated to my husband’s sister’s farm.” Larson explained. “It was a long time before we got to see our home again. There had been three feet of water on the top floor of our two-story home. It was so eerie. Nothing prepares you for the smell—dirt and mold, it sticks with you for a long time.”
The road to recovery was a long one. “We had flood insurance and had increased our coverage prior to the disaster, so we were in good shape. We were offered a buyout, but it was less than what we were insured for, so we voluntarily moved our house and sold the land to the city.”
“It was like living in a war-torn city – you get so caught up in your story. Everyone was living their own unique, chaotic story.”
Larson used FEMA rental assistance for temporary housing while relocating and repairing their residence. “There were times I thought I was going to absolutely lose it.” Larson said. “The things we lost made it hard, but people were so generous after the flood.” –including a church in Marshall, Minnesota that “adopted” flood survivors in East Grand Forks and helped replace lost or damaged items.
Twenty years later, Larson remains in East Grand Forks and said her family knows where their home used to be and that they’ve even visited the property on occasion. “It’s amazing how often we refer to the flood, even now, 20 years later. But I feel so much safer now—the floodwalls, park and bike path made the city better as a result.”
Mayor Steve Gander, East Grand Forks
East Grand Forks Mayor Steve Gander remembers the spring of 1997 well. “It was a time that made us more grateful for everything—running water, functioning toilets, electricity, phone service, and all the other comforts that we had always taken for granted.”
In the 20 years since, many residents feel a sense of optimism, especially after a comprehensive flood control system was built by the city in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“On a personal level, people felt protected. On a financial level, people felt good about investing significant sums of money in homes and businesses here, with the faith that the risk of flooding had largely been mitigated,” said Gander. “These days, business investments in Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, are strong.”
“The new City Hall building and East Grand Forks Campbell Library are a powerful statement of what kind of community we are,” he continued. “The Greenway, which is a wide natural area adjacent to the rivers in our community, is a magnet for recreation enthusiasts and wildlife. The Red River State Recreation Campground located in the Greenway is full almost every weekend and is one of the busiest campgrounds in the Minnesota Park system. Entertainment, recreation, shopping, and employment opportunities in East Grand Forks have never been greater than they are right now.”
On a personal level, Steve Gander had firsthand experience with the flood’s destruction in ‘97 – his home’s basement was filled with water to within a foot of the ceiling, his truck was totaled, his optometry clinic had five feet of water throughout the entire building, and his parents’, as well as his wife’s parents’, homes were destroyed.
“From the moment that floodwaters came over the tops of all our dikes and flowed through our entire community until now, East Grand Forks has seen an amazing renaissance.”
After all of that though, Gander emphasizes the many positive effects of the flood. “It taught us how to give and receive help—sometimes from total strangers who we can never properly thank.” He also points to the city’s enhanced sense of patriotism since the disaster and the improved efficiency throughout the area.
“People love this area and are moving in. We are close to the population now that we were at before the flood, and we’re still growing.” Gander explained. Equally as important to him is the fact that East Grand Forks is well prepared for the possibility of rising rivers in the future. “Residents of East Grand Forks feel secure from catastrophic flooding, and they should. While no city or region can be 100 percent safe from flooding, East Grand Forks and Grand Forks are among the safest communities in the United States.”
Warren Strandell, Polk County, Minnesota Commissioner
Warren Strandell started his shift at the Emergency Operations Center at 3 a.m. on April 18, 1997. His job involved getting fresh batteries for the radios out to the sandbag crew leaders at the river’s edge. There, he saw first-hand the determined flood-fighting effort that was underway. There were thousands of men, women and children who were involved in placing the bags on the dikes. Others were working at the “sandbag central” bagging operation that had been set up on the civic center parking lot.
That afternoon though, word came of a break in the dike that left him on the wrong the side of the Red Lake River from his wife and home. His wife’s response? “I don’t care how you do it, but get your butt home.”
So Strandell found a payloader operator who was hauling sandbags and asked if he could hitch a ride. They journeyed through flooded streets, when Strandell, along with the sandbags, were transferred to a tracked backhoe. After dropping the sandbags at the break—where at least a two foot wall of water was roaring in—he was taken to a nearby earthen dam and dropped on high ground from the backhoe’s extended bucket.
Strandell managed to get home, just in time to discover a slowly flooding basement. Hours later, he and his wife were evacuated by a National Guard truck and helicoptered to safety in Crookston, Minnesota, about 25 miles away.
“Those of us in East Grand Forks always believed we could beat the flood. Even when the situation progressed to the point where there was no chance of winning, many of us never accepted defeat. We had lost a battle but never the war. The setback only made us more determined than ever to bounce back.”
Strandell and his wife stayed with his brother-in-law for nearly three weeks. Returning home in mid-May, they discovered five feet of water in the basement. Strandell noted, “Those of us with only full basements were extremely lucky. We could save our homes, we could restore them. By contrast, over 500 homes were destroyed.” The Strandells parked a camper in their driveway, living there for two weeks while repairs were made to their home.
“East Grand Forks now has an excellent flood control system and our infrastructure is in great shape,” Strandell said. “Today, this city is a flood recovery poster child.”
Ron Sherman, Federal Coordinating Officer for DR-1175 in Minnesota
It was early April 1997 and Ron Sherman was deployed to northwest Minnesota, along with a team of FEMA staff, to coordinate the federal response to the flooding across the state. Sherman said he realized the enormity of the flood in East Grand Forks when, while attending a meeting with the mayor at city hall, it was announced, “water is coming in the front door, we’re going to have to leave.”
The days following were long and intense, focused on life-saving and life-sustaining operations at all levels of government. “I slept in my rental car the first three nights. It became one of the most complicated disasters I’ve ever worked, and at that time, one of the largest disaster relocations of Americans ever.”
Getting survivors into temporary housing became an immediate priority. “FEMA’s [temporary housing] program began about a week after the water went down, and kept families next to their homes while mobile home parks were being built.” When it became clear that some of these neighborhoods wouldn’t be re-inhabited, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began setting up utility lines for permanent homes to be setup in the relocation areas.
When Sherman traveled back to East Grand Forks in 2007 to commemorate the 10-year anniversary, he was “blown away by the progress” that had been made in the area. There were single-family homes where mobile homes had been when he was there last.
“Many of these residents and local officials are people I remain friends with to this day,” Sherman said. “This event showed an amazing level of involvement from local residents, not just elected officials, in the recovery planning process.”
“That deployment is one of the most memorable of my long career. Events like this are ‘life markers’ and they don’t go away. When people ask ‘Where were you on this day?’ you always remember the answer. That’s what this flood was.”
After catastrophe, through years of hard-fought recovery, the community of East Grand Forks has emerged stronger and more resilient than ever to future disasters.