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Spring 2007: Ten years later...Grand Forks

Posted by Marilyn Hagerty 10/20/2016 1:16:20 PM

That became the rallying cry after the flood in Grand Forks. And today as city leaders look back to the bleak days of April 1997 most of them agree things are better now than they were 10 years ago.


The newspaper was down, but not out. Some schools were ruined, but replaced. There has been a re-imaging of the downtown. Attractive new floodwalls protect the city from the Red River. New infrastructure is in place. New housing has been provided. Older houses have been repaired. A Greenway has been created behind the dikes all along the Red River.


Mike Maidenberg, former publisher of the Grand Forks Herald now with the Knight Foundation in Miami, Florida, remembers his lowest moment during the flood. He was standing in the parking lot the day after the newspaper was one of 11 buildings destroyed by the downtown fire in the middle of the murky water. Everything was crushed, soiled, ruined or destroyed. He was talking with an experienced NBC News disaster reporter who said, “This place is dead.”


Then in the distance, Maidenberg heard the faint sound of a saw and the symbol of building. It was a sign of recovery. “But,” he says in retrospect, “The low ebb doesn’t happen during an emergency. That comes maybe 30 days later when the magnitude of the situation weighs in on you. We were advised by FEMA that recovery would be years in the making. I think it has been a decade-long process.”


With Maidenberg and Herald editor Mike Jacobs, now publisher and editor, at the helm the newspaper published editions throughout the flood and the days following. By setting up makeshift offices and having the printing done in St. Paul, the newspaper continued as a sign of hope and cohesion for residents of Grand Forks scattered around the region by the flood. It was flown to both sides of the swollen Red River and distributed free. It showed people that they still had a city and told them what was happening day by day. And for its coverage, the Grand Forks Herald won a Pulitzer Prize.


Recreating a City

Maidenberg was appointed chairman of a Mayor’s committee to re-image the downtown in the days after the flood. Almost 80 people showed up for the first meeting with energy and excitement for a new beginning. Now 10 years later, Maidenberg has visited Biloxi, Mississippi, faced with a similar disaster and he sees once again how important those early days are for recreating a city.


With help from federal sources such as FEMA and the Corps of Engineers along with grants from organizations including the Knight Foundation, the downtown has taken on a new look. There is a Town Square where public events and farmer markets are held in good weather. The river front has been redesigned with an obelisk showing the stages of the flood, and there is a labyrinth for walking and meditating. There are bike and walking paths along the Greenway on the river side of the dikes. Recovery has brought mini-parks to the downtown area. Along with businesses springing up, there are apartments and night spots downtown.


While the city has grown since the flood, Grand Forks’ public school population is down to 7,200 from the pre-flood enrollment of 9,000.


But Superintendent Mark Sanford says there is more to the lower enrollment story than the flood. The district lost students when half of the Missile Wing was lost at Grand Forks Air Force Base. And he says the rest is due to the demography of North Dakota with more families, but families of smaller size. While there used to be an average of three people per family, it is now 2.25. That means there are fewer people in the growing number of homes. And that means there are fewer students.


The flip side of the lower enrollment has meant smaller class sizes in better, newer schools. The post-flood era has brought on an all-day kindergarten and placement of sixth graders in middle schools, which makes more room in the grade schools. Students are faring better in test results now, although there was a downturn right after the flood.


While Grand Forks lost five school buildings in the flood, it was able to build three new ones and upgrade others. Sanford says the district had very good, comprehensive insurance as well as help from FEMA and the state.


Downtown Businesses Move, Rebuild 

Since the flood, new businesses have moved into Grand Forks and the city has grown to the southwest – away from the river. The new shopping area lines 32nd Avenue South. But not everybody left the downtown. Widman’s Candy Shop was one of the first businesses up and running again on South Third Street after the flood. Chef Kim Holmes, who moved his Sanders Restaurant to a strip mall on South Washington Street, has since rebuilt downtown and is back in business there. Terry Knudson, whose downtown Ski & Bike Shop inventory was swallowed up by the flood, is now doing business at 1711 South Washington Street. Some businesses unable to qualify for flood help closed up shop forever.


Knudson had just remodeled and moved into a new building at 202 DeMers Avenue, close to the Red River, when the flood waters engulfed his business. He lost 80 percent of his merchandise. After the flood, he took out Small Business Administration loans and tried to work with manufacturers he had been dealing with for 20 years. He says, “We have struggled ever since.” The bike side of the business has been very stable. The ski side has been shaky since winters such as the one just passed have sometimes not produced enough snow. But, he says, “It seems like the good Lord has a way for us to keep going.”


Holmes was fortunate enough to have flood insurance on his small restaurant. He stayed in business on South Washington Street for two years until things were picking up again downtown. Then he was able to build a new, larger restaurant on Third Street where there is new post-flood infrastructure. He says he landed on his feet and is better off now. 


He looks favorably on the recovery help that came to Grand Forks now as he sees the problems in New Orleans. “We had good leadership here and we had a lot of help. The whole country opened their hearts to us. I remember hearing people as far away as Winnipeg talking on the radio and saying they could put up flood refugees.


“The whole thing was positive here with help from FEMA and help from the Air Force. Help came from everywhere.”


Randy Newman, president of Alerus Financial, which lost two of three buildings in the downtown flood and fire, believes the business recovery of the city has been good. He credits the recovery to good decisions made right after the disaster. His own company had full recovery insurance. But it was a major disruption. For a time, Alerus put up 100 employees in Fargo in the days following the flood. He says employees of Alerus worked together to see the business rebound in the months following the flood and help customers with services including low income mortgages.


Newman served with Bruce Gjovig of the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota, on a mayor’s committee to oversee Small Business Administration loans for sectors of the city with low income, non-profits and small businesses without reserves. Though a disaster like this hurts, he says, the loans make is possible to rebuild. And while some businesses have struggled to rebuild, others have been able to come in with the advantage of starting out anew without the burden of previous loss and loans. But overall, he believes the business recovery of the city deserved high marks for flood recovery.


Father William Sherman of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, one of the oldest and largest in Grand Forks, marvels at the recovery from the flood. Now retired, he felt the sting when his own church sustained $4 million in damage on the lower levels. The night the dikes broke, the warden from the Grand Forks County Correctional Center called and asked about placing prisoners in the gymnasium of the St. Michael’s School. And they came, some in shackles. But by 3 a.m., the water was flowing downstairs in the Youth Center and the prisoners were taken away to places near and far. Sherman with other priests worked out of nearby Larimore, trying to spend time with people evacuated from their homes.


Some people were kind of disoriented, he says, but only for a short time. “One thing about the people here is that they are resilient. They have lived through blizzards and other disasters.”


Mayor Owens became the “face of the flood”

“It’s like we’re in God’s hands. I don’t feel bad because we will rebuild and we do have faith. Together we will come out of this, and the city will be courageous.”


Those were the words of Mayor Pat Owens at a press conference during the height of the disaster in Grand Forks on April 21, 1997. The petite woman who became the face of the flood now lives in retirement in Florida. But she will be back when the city of Grand Forks stages its celebration to thank all who helped out 10 years ago.


She is a key person, according to Mayor Mike Brown, who defeated Owens when she ran for her second term as mayor in 2000.


During the past five years in Florida, Mayor Owens has had time to reflect. She is confident everyone involved did the best they could to help the recovery efforts under extremely difficult conditions. She says city, state and federal officials worked hand in hand through it all, and politics were set aside. The entire nation stepped forth to help us monetarily and physically.


“This definitely helped us to keep the faith through it all. Thus, Grand Forks has been able to rebuild bigger, better, stronger than before,” she said recently.


Mayor Owens was there when the dikes were breaking on April 18, 1997. She was there when the downtown flooded and buildings were burning on April 19. She watched helplessly as helicopters flew over dropping chemicals from above because there was no water pressure and it was impossible to save eight buildings that went up in flames. 


It was Pat Owens who welcomed President Clinton to Grand Forks and was waiting when congressmen came visiting. She was in Washington when the money promised for disaster aid was slow coming through. From the rubble downtown she visualized a better city center. From houses demolished and carted away, she could see new housing developments that grew up on the dry south and west edges of the city. She was dreaming of a new Grand Forks protected from the flood area with room for a Greenway along the Red River.


Mayor Owens quickly set up a Flood Task Force and attended one round after another of flood-related meetings. With an open mind, she served as a funnel through which all ideas ran. She emerged as a hero for handling the flood during her first year in office.


Putting Grand Forks together, she said would be like working a giant jigsaw puzzle. There were so many pieces to fit together. Downtown development hinged on dike and levee or diversion plans. Mayor Owens viewed it as a window of opportunity. “We’re all in it together. We have to remind ourselves to keep the lines of communication open between the city and federal government,” she said at the time.


The flood brought people of North Dakota into a unique closeness with help coming from every corner of the state. And it came from far beyond the borders.


Pat Owens had spent 33 years as an administrator in the mayor’s office before she ran for the post in 1996. When she was elected in June, she would never have dreamed that within a year she would be in charge of a city evacuated by flood and fire.


With her husband, Bobby, she has been living in Ocala, Florida, for the past five years. He has had heart bypass surgery, and she is recovering from knee replacement surgery.


“When Katrina hit,” she says, “it brought back all the heartache that we suffered in 1997. It touched me more than words can express. I realized then that our disaster was bad, but theirs was catastrophic. We had so much destruction, but there was no loss of life in the actual waters or fire.” Owens was called to Washington, D.C., by Senator Susan Collins, chairperson of the Committee on Homestead Security and Government Affairs, to testify on the Grand Forks recovery for the benefit of Katrina recovery.


She felt honored, she says, to do this on behalf of Grand Forks. She tried to stay active with FEMA in recent years, but she decided to retire and stay home with her husband after he had seven-way bypass surgery last year.


Mayor Brown still looking to the Future

The recovery over the past 10 years has been slow but steady, believes Mayor Mike Brown.


He says each year Grand Forks building permits go up with construction reaching $156.56 million last year. And that was $37 million higher than the previous year. It was $23 million higher than 1998, the big post-flood construction boom.


The now complete dike system was done with more than $400 million in funds from the Corps of Engineers, the State of North Dakota and Grand Forks citizens. Yes, there are scars. The Mayor says FEMA won’t make things like they were before. But he says it will give the help to move ahead. Things will never be the same as they were before the flood. He compares it to the stages of grief. “I think this community has come through the stages of trauma and grief, and I think it is very healthy now.


“Just look at Lincoln Drive Park that takes the place of a neighborhood that was displaced. The people who once lived there are proud of it and hold a remembrance ceremony every year. Nobody refused to give up their home after the flood, although some came close to it. There were formulas for taking out homes and they worked through it with FEMA.”


The Mayor himself resisted the loss of his family home on Loamy Hills Drive in the south end of Grand Forks to make room for dikes. After all was said and done, he was forced to sell his house. But he purchased back what remained and used part of it in his new home on Desiree Drive, still farther south than before. “At first,” he says, “we resist change, and then we accept it.”


As he gets older, Mayor Brown, 56, says he can accept change. “When you are younger, it is more threatening.”


The Mayor, a Grand Forks doctor, had surgery scheduled at the hospital on the day the river crested 10 years ago. “Nobody was here,” he said. “We couldn’t do anything.” His wife, Anne, also a physician, had taken the two children, Grady, then 6, and Michaela, then 10, to Willow City, to stay with grandparents and go to school.


That chapter is closed, he says. Flood waters of 2006 reached more than 53 feet, higher than any readings since the flood of 1997. Proof of recovery, he says, is that nobody worried about the flood waters. He and his wife along with Mayor Lynn Stauss and his wife from East Grand Forks were attending the Anne Murray concert in town with no fear.


That, he believes was the test of the flood protection now in place in Greater Grand Forks. And he notes the unforeseen bonuses that came to the city in the wake of the horrible flood. These include new schools, and new infrastructure for sewers and water.


The perspective of time, especially the first decade, is helping Grand Forks accept all that has happened. The city has recovered and is moving on.


Marilyn Hagerty has been a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald since the 1950s.

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