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A quiet spring in the Red River Valley

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Flood marker
Floods are a big part of the history of Grand Forks. This marker shows the high water levels of the worst floods.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Dustin and Paulette Weleski moved into their East Grand Forks home one year before the flood.  When the Red River flowed over levees, water rose above the second floor of their home. 

Dustin stayed in town, his job as a police officer required him to patrol the flooded streets.  Paulette left to stay with family nearby. 

"He would call me and describe things and you couldn't really picture what was happening. I remember asking him specifically about our house," says Paulette Weleski as she pauses to compose herself. "It's funny, you'd think after ten years it wouldn't be this hard." 

Weleski family
Dustin and Paulette Weleski lost their East Grand Forks home to floodwaters. They chose to relocate rather than rebuild.
Photo provided by the Weleskis

Paulette says she no longer thinks about the flood very often, but it's never far away. Last month, pictures of flooded homes on television brought a rush of memories and tears.  Only a wedding dress and a few water damaged photos were salvaged from the Weleski home, which was among hundreds demolished after the flood.   "We've learned that was just stuff," says Paulette Weleski. "It was our house but we've rebuilt a home and we have each other and the other stuff is all replaceable."

"The one thing that you remember is the smell," says Dustin Weleksi. "It's the chemicals, diesel fuel, sewage, whatever it is. Even the few pictures we have left, you open the photo album and you get the flood smell."

Soon after the flood, Dustin and Paulette left East Grand Forks. They now live in a new housing development near St. Cloud. There are still friends and family to visit in East Grand Forks, but Dustin Weleski has no regrets about leaving.    "Every spring when I see flooding I'm glad I'm not there. Because you know what, that river is still there and I wouldn't want to live every March, April and May wondering if the dikes are going to break," says Weleski. " I'm glad I'm not there anymore."

Flooded bridge
Flooding from the Red River in Grand Forks, N.D. can be seen in this overview from April 1997.
Stephen Jaffey/AFP/Getty Images

The flood of '97 pushed thousands of people away from the Red River valley, including the woman who became the face of the flood.  Former Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens says the night she ordered a citywide evacuation lingers like a bad dream.  There are images she can't forget, like a city engineer asking forgiveness because the dikes he built failed to hold back floodwater.   "I'll never forget that because he had tears running down his face and he was a good-sized guy," recalls Owens. "I thought, 'We're not going to let ourselves go.' That's where I came up with 'You've just gotta keep the faith and keep moving and we'll get through this.'" 

Pat Owens became the flood mayor. That fame helped her convince Congress to spend billions on Grand Forks recovery projects. But it also made her the target for angry, frustrated city residents, and three years later the flood mayor was voted out of office.  

Owens spent some time working as a consultant for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but each disaster she visited ripped the scab off her own emotional wounds. Today, she lives in a Florida retirement community and looks back less often. 

"Finally, after all these years I'm at peace with myself," says Owens. "Because I know in my heart and mind we did the best we could for the citizens of Grand Forks."

Grand Forks floodwall
In 1997 water was four to five feet deep on this street. It's now protected by a flood wall.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Pat Owens is back in Grand Forks for the flood anniversary, but it's not really home anymore.

Across the river, East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss beams with pride as sits in his city hall office.  The new city hall is patterned after Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. It was among the first big building projects after the flood. Some thought the new city hall extravagant, but Lynn Stauss says it served as a beacon of hope that the city could recover from the flood. 

Ten years ago Lynn Stauss watched as the dikes failed. The next morning the National Guard brought him to the police station. 

"They took me into the police chief's office and there were quite a few people there, and what they were there for is trying to determine if I was mentally capable of handling the situation or if they were going to have to declare martial law and take over the community." 

Stauss passed that first test, but in the weeks that followed, there were times he didn't believe East Grand Forks would survive.

"Sometimes I said to myself, 'In this modern age, I'm going to be the first mayor that ever lost his community.'  The job was done, everybody was leaving. That's what I felt like, the mayor that lost his community," says Stauss.

Ten years later Stauss calls East Grand Forks the poster child of flood recovery. Main Street is bustling, the city tax base is bigger than it was before the flood and people are feeling good about a new $400 million system of levees and flood walls that will be completed later this year.

But the flood recovery is not over. 

City Hall
Some residents call it Taj Mah City Hall, but Mayor Lynn Stauss says the building became a symbol of hope for East Grand Forks.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"I believe the community has taken 10 years to recover, but the residents will take 20 years," says Stauss. "What happened when they got flooded, is they had to take out a 20-year loan. So these residents see it as a tax for 20 years, what the flood did to them.  They don't feel the celebration is there, because they are still paying the debt."

That debt has strained budgets and relationships. 

Kevin Dean understands the life changing effects of a disaster. His home had more than $30,000 in damage. He was determined to stay and rebuild. 

"It didn't really hit me until, I remember a day in January 1998," says Dean. "I was taking a load of laundry downstairs and I got about half way downstairs and I looked around and all I saw were the bare brick walls and it just all of a sudden just hit me and I just sat there and started crying." 

Dean rebuilt his home near the river, but 5 years later his marriage fell apart and he left the house he'd struggled to save.  Like many Grand Forks residents, Kevin Dean is moving on, but he can't escape the memories.  Just watching the river rise this spring makes his heart pound, even though he knows there's no chance of flooding. 

Kevin Dean
Kevin Dean says Grand Forks residents feel much more secure with a massive new levee system.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"When I hear a helicopter, it gives me a spooky feeling.  There are certain songs I hear, there are certain smells that I smell to this day that all of a sudden I am back in 1997 all over again and it's eerie. I don't know that I'll ever get over that," says Dean. 

Those memories are one reason some in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks are angry about about celebratory events like a parade and barbecue to mark the flood anniversary. They don't want to be reminded. They see nothing to celebrate. Others say it's important to recognize the flood recovery and thank the thousands of people who helped when Grand Forks and East Grand Forks residents were evacuated in 1997.

Former Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens' mantra during the flood was "Keep the faith, keep moving, and we'll get through this."

That theme is echoed in Kevin Deans philosophy ten years later. 

"At a certain point in your life you have to turn the page and go on.  Not only to the next page but maybe to the next chapter," says Dean.  "It just takes some time doing all of that."