The Flood of 1997 | April 19, 2023

On April 18, 1997, the Red River of the North broke through walls upon walls of sandbags and swept over Grand Forks, North Dakota.  As the city was evacuated, firefighters waded through chest-high waters to quench a fire that would ultimately claim eleven buildings over three blocks in the historic downtown district.  When the water receded, 82% of the city’s homes, 70% of the schools, and 62% of the businesses had been damaged.  Through it all – from flooding to cleanup to transformative rebirth – the people of Grand Forks remained steadfast and strong, embodying the word “community” in its every meaning of the word.  Much has been written about the resiliency of Grand Forks, from the newspaper that never stopped running (receiving a Pulitzer Prize for public service as a result) to the high school prom hosted in an airplane hangar at the Air Force base.

However, there is one voice that has yet to be heard: that of a 17-year-old idiot.  Here is her story.

First, though, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page regarding the Red River.  There are 250 rivers that flow North – one is the Nile, another is the Red River.  The Red River starts in Breckenridge, Minnesota and runs up through North Dakota to Lake Winnipeg.  What is something Minnesota, North Dakota, and Manitoba have in common?  Snow.  What happens when snow melts?  It turns into water.  What happens when there is suddenly a lot more water in a river?  It floods.  A river is considered “flooded” when it leaves its banks, and I’m not going to fact-check this but I’m 99% certain the Red River floods every single year.  It’s flooded right this second and there’s still ice on it.  It floods so often that back in 1997 we had a series of earthen dikes to keep the water under control (today we have a much fancier flood protection system, including much fancier dikes).  So, when people started tossing around the word “flood” back in February and March of 1997 no one got too hotsy-totsy because, like I said, it wasn’t normally a big deal.

I was a 17-year-old high school junior in 1997.  I was a member of the school dance team, boasted a bedroom of full vinyl blow-up furniture and pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio, and spent my free time cruising the neighborhoods of Grand Forks in my Ford Tempo.  I had a boyfriend who was a year older than me and lived on the Grand Force Air Force Base, which were two things I considered to be very exotic.  I was one of those straight-A students that got to leave class, ponytail bow a-waggin’, to paint signs for pep rallies because “the boys really need our support.”  Also, I was an idiot.

As an idiot, I didn’t notice that Grand Forks had been subjected to a greater number of blizzards that year as compared to the past and that none of that snow had yet melted.  When the final blizzard, Hannah, hit on April 4, I had two friends – a girl from down the street and a boy from the base – over to hang out on my blow-up furniture and the only thing I cared about was that the boy couldn’t get back home for three days and so WE HAD A SLEEPOVER!  AND WE PAINTED HIS TOES WITH GREEN POLISH!  Did it matter that 300,000 people didn’t have power for three days?  No, we had a fireplace!  Did it matter that the blizzard was followed by freezing rain which pushed the river into flood stage?  No, didn’t you hear the toe painting thing?!

All of this did matter to much smarter other people, who took a look at the mountains of snow and ice and began to question the accuracy of the flood predictions put forth by the Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service.  You’re fine, the National Weather Service said; the river would crest at 49 feet, which was the height of the dikes.  However, since folks were feeling nervous, they would temporarily build up the dikes to 52 feet.  “Okay,” everyone else said.  “They are making a movie about the Titanic. It comes out in December,”  I said.

We were rewarded the following week with gloriously warm weather.   North Dakota’s governor activated the National Guard to begin sandbag preparations.  For my part, I turned a pair of jeans into super-duper cute cut-off shorts.

On April 15, the river rose 45 feet, necessitating the shut-down of the Point Bridge, the lower of two bridges connecting Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minnesota.  Our house backed up onto Central Park dike, and that evening my family walked up onto the dike to check out the river.

“I think we should take a few things out of the basement,” my dad, a lifelong Grand Forks resident, said.

“Oh, that bridge shuts down all the time,” my mom, formerly of New Jersey, said.

So as not to disobey my dad, I went down to the basement before bed and brought up “a few things” – singularly, a box of old Barbie clothes (no Barbies).

On April 16, I came home from school to find my mother moving a stack of basement items to the dining room table.  In the park behind the dike, the water had covered the top of the metal playground slide.

“Go and pack an overnight bag,” she told me.  “The mayor thinks those of us by the river should move out temporarily.  We may need to spend a couple of days at a hotel.”

I went upstairs to my bedroom and tossed some old sweats into a backpack.  I didn’t pack any of my favorite clothes, especially my rad new cut-offs, because when my mother said, “May need to” I heard “No chance in the world” and I didn’t want my awesome outfits in backpack purgatory.  Fun fact: at this point the river was higher than the National Weather Service had predicted and so they had to update their guesstimate.  My memory is that they updated to 50 feet.  On April 17, the river rose to 50.96 feet.

Here’s another fun fact: when a neighborhood is evacuated due to flooding, they sound the area tornado siren.  I awakened April 18 to the tornado siren going off in a neighborhood a few miles a day.

To this day, I have no idea why I went to school on April 18.  My dad was up before morning light with our neighbors to sandbag the dike behind our houses.  The water was rising at a rate of one inch per hour, and the National Weather Service couldn’t update their predictions fast enough – so, for the entire day, radio hosts would say things like, “The National Weather Service states the river will crest at 51 feet.  Current river levels are 51.8.”  (Another fact!  It ultimately crested at 54.35 feet.)  I actually don’t think my sister went to school so as to help my parents sandbag our house.  My sister, however, was not an idiot.

This idiot was at school for a total of two minutes before the principal came over the P.A. system and told all students to report to sandbag stations.  I got on a bus to Lincoln Drive, located two blocks away from my own street.  Lincoln Drive was this darling neighborhood that curved around hundred-year-old oak trees.  It was lower than the neighborhoods around it, and my sister and I loved to turn our bikes down the lane, let go of the handlebars, and let the momentum of the hill carry us as far as we could go without pedaling.  There were two teeny-tiny houses – one pink and one green – set alongside the other post-war homes on Lincoln Drive, and my sister and I had decided that when we grew up we would buy those houses and live next to each other forever.

I was stationed for sandbagging directly in front of those two little houses, and I looked at them lovingly as my fellow students passed bags of sand down the line.  I was thinking about how I was going to put in hot pink window boxes – maybe in blow-up vinyl –when the Lincoln Drive tornado siren began to sound.

“Off the dike, off the dike, off the dike!”  One of the members of the National Guard yelled.  Down the row, water began to pour from the top of the sandbags.  I jogged down the dike as another member of the Guard stepped out the door of the little green house holding both a suitcase and the hand of the elderly resident.

“What do you want to do now?” I said to one of my friends, thinking that maybe we could go get a bagel and ranch dressing or something.  Someone pushed a group of us down the street to a house in the Reeves Drive neighborhood, one block from my house.  I sandbagged there for a few hours and thought about Leonardo DiCaprio.

Finally, I took a break and went to get a can of water from the Guard (bottled water hadn’t been invented yet and if you want to know what 1997 canned water tasted like, the answer is dust).  I was standing at the truck when river water started to flow down the middle of the street and the Central Park siren – MY siren – went off.

“Do you live around here?” a Guardsman said to me.

“Yes,” I said.

“You should go home,” he said.

I was rounding the corner to my street when my mom pulled up beside me.

“Where have you been?”  She asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

An incredibly kind and wonderful family living outside of town had called and offered to take us in.  My sister, mom, and I pulled into their driveway as the sun was beginning to set; my dad came late that evening when it was clear that nothing more could be done.  There I was – homeless, in possession of some old sweats and nothing else, and in the arms of amazingly generous people who took us in without question; and so I did what any idiot would do: I tied up the singular phone line (again, ‘90s) to call my boyfriend.

“Why are you calling me?”  He asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Two days later, my parents shipped my sister and me off to my grandparents’ house in New Jersey.  Somewhere on the airplane it dawned on me that mayyyybe I could have made some better choices.  I became so aware of my idiocrasy that when I found myself in New Jersey, awash in Broadway tickets and new non-old-sweats clothes and my beloved grandparents and a constant stream of people who had followed the flooding on their own news networks and wanted to help us in any way they could, I did what any dumb-dumb would do: I left all of it behind and flew back to the apartment my parents had rented in Fargo and sat on the floor and watched the Hanson Brothers’ “MMMBop” music video on repeat on MTV (this was back when MTV showed music videos and those music videos were mostly “MMMBop”) until we were given the all-clear to return to a city covered in multiple inches of mud and mold.

I could honestly write another 50,000 words on the Flood of 1997, and every paragraph would end with the phrase, “Because I was an idiot.”  Fortunately, there were thousands of non-idiots in Grand Forks who worked hard to get the city to where it is today.  For my part, I went and saw Titanic in the movie theater twice and now whenever it snows in April I take one thing out of the basement.  The end.

The school year was obviously cancelled, but when we went back the community wanted to make sure students had both a prom and a graduation.  As I mentioned earlier, our prom was held at the base and Soul Asylum came and played (VERY exciting).  I, the Vinyl Queen, had purchased a hologram vinyl dress earlier that year and wore it to prom – which turned out to be the only intelligent choice I made in 1997 because it was 9,000 degrees in that hangar and I just kept squeegeeing the sweat off my dress and never stopped dancing.  Also, it was dark and my hologram vinyl dress reflected a lot of light, and so if you come across any pictures from that prom (it was heavily covered by the national media) you can most likely see me in it.  The photo above was printed in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.  I look particularly idiotic.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Flood of 1997, I’d recommend this or this.  Someone also digitized all of the 9-1-1 calls from the evacuation days, and if you find yourself at the University of North Dakota (where they are archived) they are an good listen if you want to hear a bunch of North Dakotans say things like, “Sorry to bother you, but the water is over the berm in my neighborhood.  Just thought you should know.”

Dr. Denise Lajimodiere is North Dakota’s newest Poet Laureate. (KX Net)

A couple living in Evergreen Senior Living in Dickinson were gifted a trip to Las Vegas and tickets to a Wild game after sharing their New Years resolutions. (Valley News Live)

Hankinson’s Cody Mauch is sharing his gap-toothed grin on football fields across the NFL. (ESPN)

Fargo’s Dr. Steve M. Agnes wrote his own obituary.  Give it a read. (Fargo Forum)

Bismarck’s Diane and Bruce Magidson left their jobs in New York and moved to North Dakota to start a clothing business. (KFYR TV)

You may have noticed a familiar face at the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey National Championship: Williston’s Tyler Liffrig, one of the officials. (KX Net) (KFYR TV)

Three Minoters – Kendra and Andrew Eerdmans and Kellie Meyer – represented North Dakota at the 127th Boston Marathon. (KFYR TV)

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