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Listen MPR reporters Dan Gunderson and Tim Nelson on what it was like to cover the devastating 1997 Red River flood
Downtown was underwater — and on fire.
The Red River had risen up to swallow Grand Forks in April 1997. Pictures and video beamed around the world showed downtown buildings burning, largely out of reach of firefighters who struggled to navigate the flooded streets. Eleven buildings were destroyed.
"Out of a city of close to 9,000 people the number was eight homes that had no flood damage," recalled Steve Gander, current mayor of East Grand Forks, Minn. His town, on the Minnesota side of the river and Grand Forks, on the North Dakota side, suffered some of the worst effects of the slow-moving 1997 disaster.
It looked like an apocalypse. The flood displaced more than 50,000 people in East Grand Forks and Grand Forks and the devastation drew national attention and a visit from President Clinton.
It also drove people to act. Congress moved quickly to fund the massive levee system at a cost of $409 million. To make room for the levees, entire neighborhoods were demolished.
Removing flood-prone houses created space for a large greenway that local officials say turned the Red River from an adversary to an asset over time, although Gander said some businesses sat vacant for years until the permanent levees were finished.
It paid off, though. Twelve years after the 1997 flood, East Grand Forks saw its fourth highest flood on record and it was a totally different experience.
"I felt a little guilty that year not throwing sandbags in a 49-foot flood. I'm like shouldn't I be somewhere throwing bags and whatnot?" said Gander. " At the crest, I maybe wasn't supposed to but I stood on the levee behind my house. The water was about 15 feet below the top of the levee. I went in the house and slept like a baby."
"This place would have dried up into a ghost town without flood control," said Gander, sitting in his spacious office in the City Hall built after the flood. "How confident are you putting half a million or a million-dollar investment in an apartment, in an optometry clinic, in a in a town that's vulnerable to flooding? Not going to happen."
Some businesses and residents are still paying off 30-year government loans that helped them recover from the flood. There are still empty spaces in the downtowns of both communities.
But in East Grand Forks, the riverfront is filled with restaurants and a Cabela's outdoor sports gear store draws traffic to the area. Grand Forks city officials say the downtown is stronger than it was before the flood with more small businesses, shops and entertainment options.
"The flood protection project was essential for a recovery. And our confidence and our peace of mind." said Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown. "The town is thriving and growing and rebounding quite well."
The rising waters strained the flood protection capacity of communities large and small all along the Red River. At the headwaters, 125 miles south of Grand Forks, the city of Breckenridge, Minn., also succumbed to floodwaters when temporary dikes failed.
A flood diversion channel and levees to protect Breckenridge and neighboring Wahpeton, N.D., were completed in 2005 at a cost of $45 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that project has prevented $165 million in flood damage.
In all, more than $1 billion has been spent on flood control projects along the Red River since 1997.
The largest population center along the Red River, though, remains vulnerable to flooding. Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., narrowly escaped major damage in 1997, even as the river reached its highest level in 100 years. Some riverside neighborhoods flooded, but miles of emergency levees and millions of sandbags saved most of the community.
When it was over, people breathed a sigh of relief.
"I think after '97 a lot of people did believe that was it, that's the worst we're ever going to see," said Moorhead city engineer Bob Zimmerman.
Flood control efforts in Moorhead didn't begin in earnest until the Red River reached a new record level in 2009 and the city once again narrowly escaped catastrophe.
"Post '09 we had people asking to be bought out days after the flood crest," Zimmerman recalled. Hundreds of homes in flood prone areas of Moorhead and Fargo were moved or demolished to make way for new permanent levees. Zimmerman puts the cost of those projects at about $110 million.
If a flood comparable to 2009 hits again, the city won't need hundreds of volunteers to build sandbag dikes, he added.
"Generally speaking it would not be the all-out community event that it has been in the past," he said. "And while city staff would be extremely busy implementing all the parts of our flood plan, for the most part the public really wouldn't be negatively impacted."
And across the river in Fargo, city engineer April Walker said her city is also aiming to get out of the sandbag business.
"If we're looking at a 2009 event, which was you know higher than 1997, we were at about 7 million bags. And if we had a similar event here in Fargo we think would be closer to about a half million bags," she said.
In Fargo, the land is lower, the city is larger and nearly $350 million has been spent on flood protection projects.
Even with all the improvements, Fargo and Moorhead still get nervous when the Red River rises.
New levees can handle a flood a bit higher than the record 2009 flood, but Walker says flood history indicates that might not be high enough.
"Call it climate change, call it whatever you want. We look at how many major floods we have faced in recent years, something's changing," she said. "We are prepared for what we've seen, and we need to also keep an eye on what could happen and I think that's where you see that the continued motivation for the FM diversion."
The Red River diversion is the most colossal of the region's flood mitigation efforts: a $2 billion project to channel floodwater around Fargo.
Construction is starting this month, but legal battles could stall the project. Minnesota says the diversion shifts too much flooding to Minnesota land while giving North Dakota most of the benefit. The dispute is before a federal judge.
The $2 billion for the Fargo Moorhead diversion would be on top of an estimated $1.1 billion already spent on Red River Valley flood control since 1997, according to an analysis by the Red River Basin Commission.
All that new infrastructure pushed neighborhoods away from the Red River and affected how communities interact with the river. The 1997 flood also reshaped the people in those communities.
Many people are tired of talking about what residents simply call "the flood," but it was a defining moment for the city and people who experienced it, said Ken Vien, the former Grand Forks city engineer who now serves on the City Council. "I mean you just you learned so much, the stresses were so big and so you developed some really unique relationships with people forever that went through some of these life changing things."
The flood was also life changing for Peter O'Neill, the current Grand Forks fire chief who as a firefighter in 1997 struggled through flooded streets to fight the fire that destroyed those downtown buildings.
He said the disaster and the rebuilding helped him understand what's important.
"It really wasn't the homes and all those things. You can replace all that, and [to] try to explain that is a bit more difficult than what I can feel in my heart or in my soul," O'Neill said.
"I'm so very proud of the people of Grand Forks for what they went through, and the city is such a fine place to live despite all it went through," he added. "Twenty years later, I'm pretty damn proud of it."