Twenty years ago today my city became a city of refugees. Over 50,000 men, women, and children from Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota were washed out of our homes and businesses, chased from our schools and churches, and bent to the point of near breaking.
Heavy fall rains.
Ice storms and wind.
And more water.
And more water.
Most of the time I don’t even think about The Flood. But, like water, every once in a while the memories seep in and fill the mind. Normally this happens at times that are totally unexpected, set off by a sound, or a smell. And, like the water, the memories surface, swirl around awhile, then float away. Those events of twenty years ago have been weighing heavily on my heart and mind for the last month or so, brought to the surface by the twentieth anniversary, and held there by all that has changed in my adopted home over the last two decades.
I’m not going to go into what made the flood happen. There is lots of documentation available that covers that. I also don’t want there to be any suggestion that what I went through, what I saw and heard, is unique or any more admirable than what thousands of others experienced. I was one of many.
I remember days of bright sunlight and warm spring air, with skies that belied the crisis unfolding around us.
I remember being on the flood lines at the Lincoln Park neighborhood on April 17, standing on the dike, throwing sandbags down the line of people in a curving snake that started at pallets of filled sandbags, and ended with high school students who had been seasoned in the art of sandbag placement by weeks of being let out of school to do their civic best. They were young men who had developed an eye for the work, were honed to the arcane skills demanded of them, and held firm to the important and necessary task that lay ahead.
I remember sirens going off, warning us to get off the dike and find safety of high ground, as hundreds of us rushed down the dikes, and jumped into cars, vans, and trailers, all seeking what constituted highlands in our flat city. Thankfully, it was an alarm that we later learned had no immediate danger behind it.
I remember working the flood line at the south edge of town, protecting expensive homes with an indoor swimming pool and watching as an argument unfolded between a homeowner and a friend from another area of town, who needed an unused city shovel to take to their neighborhood, so that sandbags could be filled to protect their homes. To be so focused on the task of protecting the land from the river to our east that we didn’t see the water quietly lapping in from the west, surrounding us, and making all of our hard work moot as we climbed into the back of National Guard truck and rode out of the neighborhood.
To be taken to Olson Drive on Friday April 18, and to see the satellite trucks from the CBC and others parked in driveways and along the street, dishes pointed to the south, ready to stream their news to the world. To be building a dike up to the side of a house as the fire department was filling that basement with clean water, in the hopes that it would keep the foundations from collapsing from the pressure of the water-saturated ground around the outside of the house. To see the strange absurdity of looking into the windows at a finished basement turned into a pond of clear, clean, water.
To stand at the top of the dike, proud of the foot added with sandbags, only to hear the call from up and down the line to add two more feet, because the flood crest prediction was raised yet again.
To see homeowners, struggling, fighting to try to keep their homes safe, doing what, in their hearts, they knew had to be done, even as their eyes saw the expanse of the Red River of the North grow, and widen to a point where the far bank was barely visible.
To be on those dikes on April 18, and to hear sirens going off to our left in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, as their dikes began to fail, sirens that warned those residents to pick up and leave, to find safe ground, well away from the raging Red. To follow by ear as the sirens moved to our right, south, enveloping the clear, bright April air in a call of warning. To finish adding two more feet, only to be told to go home, because the crest levels were being raised again, to heights that sandbags could no longer press against.
To be home, and to watch the news and see the images of what the ears had heard earlier, with so much more power and sadness than could have been imagined while standing on the dikes listening to sirens.
To be called and told that the theatre that had been my workplace for nearly seven years was taking on water. To rush in and move costumes and cabinets out of areas that were getting wet, and to build makeshift dikes in the basement hallways to move water from the leaks at the southwest corner of the building, to the mechanical room at the northwest corner where sump pumps would take that water away.
To be in Burtness theatre, and hear stories retold by students helping to save their performance home, of National Guard troops walking on dikes and sinking to their knees in the waterlogged dikes that would soon surrender to the mighty Red River.
To go home exhausted, but unable to sleep, because the mind won’t stop thinking about ‘what ifs’ and ‘whys’. To look outside as the sun was rising on a cool, clear Saturday morning, April 19, 1997, and catch a glimpse of a reflection in the street, then realize that Red River was now calling for us, and that now our own neighborhood was no longer safe. To grab coolers to empty a freezer of food, and a refrigerator of meats and cheeses that were supposed to be made into sandwiches for a First Communion celebration that was not to be, because the Mighty Red River of the North was restless and rolling far beyond its banks. Haste, as my in-laws, in Grand Forks out of kindness to help with a First Communion party, now became essential players in our own evacuation.
Trying to calm a spinning brain, as I made lists in my head, to shut off the gas to the house, to turn off the electricity to the house, and call the emergency number to tell them that we are leaving our home.
To call my parents to tell them we were leaving. Silence on the other end of the line, as Mom and Dad tried to take in what they were hearing.
To evacuate Grand Forks, heading west on Demers Avenue and driving past the rising water at Ray Richards Golf Course, a giant water trap where once there was grass and sand.
To follow a National Guard pilot car for miles, because the Interstate was flooded and the county road that we were directed onto was now too narrow to be able to take more than a lane of traffic at a time.
Silence, in a van filled with children, as we drove south, with no idea of where we were going, just following the car in front of us as it moved south and west.
Silence, as we had breakfast in Fargo, before heading southeast on Interstate 94, to the safety of my in-laws home.
To finally realize the immensity of our situation when we stopped at the Rest Area near Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and saw the parking lot filled with cars with North Dakota plates and Grand Forks car dealership stickers, all headed the same direction. To see a neighbor, herself cast out of her home, who in the future would lose her home to foreclosure because of the flood.
A silent six hour trip to Windom, Minnesota.
To walk into my in-laws house, and see on television live images of water and fires filling our downtown.
To go to a quiet spot of the house, and let loose everything that had built up from the days when a flood fight seemed winnable.
To become a refugee with an uncertain future and a past washed away from a great river.