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Grand Forks is "Still Afloat" and Still Recovering

A decade after the worst flood in Red River Valley history, people are still recovering, but are celebrating the comeback that Grand Forks has seen.

For the Pioneer Press, two reporters followed the stories of Grand Forks natives Tom and Jean Dunham and Craig Kalenze, as well as talking to mayors from both Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, an economics professor at the University of North Dakota, and a local artist who has her commemoration work up currently at the North Dakota Museum of Art.

"A decade after a record Red River flood destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, sparked a devastating downtown fire and drove thousands of people from the city, Grand Forks still seems undecided about the defining moment in its history.

Whole sections of the community have been abandoned and residents suffered an estimated $2 billion in damage. But the flood might be the best thing that ever happened to the Red River Valley.

Since the water receded, Grand Forks' population has rebounded - adding approximately 3,000 more residents from
its preflood numbers. There's a new SuperTarget, a Lowe's and a Menards on the edge of town and a domed football stadium out by Interstate 29. When Cher played the arena in 2002, it was the biggest crowd not just of her farewell 'Living Proof' tour, but of her entire career.

"I think a lot of people thought we'd just been washed away," said Mayor Michael Brown, who was elected in 2000. "But here we are, stronger and better than ever." "

Continuing: ""We lost good residents, who lived in these low-lying areas. Most of them were on fixed incomes," said Mayor Lynn Stauss, who was in office in 1997. "There was no way with the money we gave them. ... We gave them a fair price for their homes, but inflation pushed the price of rebuilding up too much ... they just had to move away."

Even today, hundreds of families are still paying that price. The federal Small Business Administration made more than $155 million in long-term home loans to more than 7,600 area residents in the year following the flood, according to a University of North Dakota study.

"There's story after story of people that have drained their life savings, their retirement, just to rebuild here," said Al Grasser, Grand Forks city engineer. "That's not apparent from the outside, when you kind of go down the street. You see the nice house put back together, 10 years later, you get an almost surreal image of it. Time has disconnected us from that." "

Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman also did an expose on the Grand Forks flood anniversary, highlighting his talk with one of the Catholic priests in the area.

Taken from his piece: ""North Dakota is mean country," says the Rev. William Sherman, a retired Catholic priest who has lived through it. "It's harsh and it can be cruel. But the people here are tough, and they are survivors. They are used to difficult times. So they could take it.

"But it left scars."

Anyone who lives in the Red River Valley, from Wahpeton to Winnipeg, knows what Sherman means when he talks about "it": The devastating flood of 1997, which cascaded down the valley (moving south to north, with the north-running river), sweeping across towns and farms, causing $4 billion in damage.

The apocalypse came with ice and fire. I was among the many journalists who covered the disaster and I will never forget the sensation of standing in freezing water in hip boots while ashes fell on my head from the sky. All we needed was Charlton Heston to send Egyptian chariots into the water and I would've sworn we were all extras in a remake of "The Ten Commandments."

Ten years later, it still seems like something biblical happened."

The whole event is very emotional for me, as well. I lived near Fargo at the time of the flood, and we were hurt from the flood as well. I was only ten at the time, but I helped with sandbagging after school and was up one night helping my family haul water out of the basement of our newly built home. I remember seeing pictures and hearing stories on the news, and it's only now that I really understand the devastation of it all. My parents, I think, must have been very affected. Both of them graduated from the University of North Dakota (and I spent my freshman year of college there), so for them to see their college town being washed away by flood waters must have been hard. I remember going on college tours at UND and they were constantly making comments like, "That's new, that's been renovated in the last eight or nine years, after the flood."

I decided to do my "notable" entry on this event this week, because its something that I can directly relate to, and that my family (the bulk of which live in North Dakota's River Valley) has dealt with in the past.

Thanks to all the reporters who are commemorating this anniversary, and I wish I could be in Grand Forks this weekend to help them all celebrate and remember what was lost and what was gained in the aftermath of the '97 flood.