The book written to mark East Grand Forks’ 125th birthday in 2012 (“Everybody Has a Story, Everybody Is the Story”) includes over 50 stories of people who were heavily involved in the floodfight waged in 1997. Those accounts were only the tip of the iceberg, though. Like the book’s title, everyone had a story.

    The book written to mark East Grand Forks’ 125th birthday in 2012 (“Everybody Has a Story, Everybody Is the Story”) includes over 50 stories of people who were heavily involved in the floodfight waged in 1997. Those accounts were only the tip of the iceberg, though. Like the book’s title, everyone had a story.

    In my mind, I often go back to some of my experiences. With that cue during this week of the 20th anniversary of that “event,” I invite you to come along for a trip back in time… but that’s only if you are if you are so inclined.
I was at East Grand Forks City Hall when news came to those who were coordinating the floodfight that a dike had been breached. That was at about mid-afternoon on April 18, 1997.

    That particular area of diking on the Point had been keeping the Red Lake River out of the residential area. Devastating as the news was, no one at flood control center was ready to concede defeat. An attempt was quickly organized to construct secondary diking that would protect the inner circle of the Point area. A good idea but there just wasn’t time to get it done.

    Then a dike along the Red River on the west side of the Point area was overtopped.

Not in the plan

    These things just weren’t supposed to happen… not in East Grand Forks where year after year the community had forged a remarkable record of keeping the Red and Red Lake rivers out of town.

    One of the greatest of the battles with the rivers occurred in 1979 when wall of a wall of sandbags kept the Point area dry for a full week. It was an island with no way in or out except but by boat and affectionately became known as Isle deSandbag.

    The thinking 18 years later in 1997 was that the Point area, along with all of the rest if the city, could be kept dry again. Looking back, though, there really wasn’t any chance for that to happen again.

    My job during the 1997 flood fight was rather insignificant. In the role of being a gopher, I would go around to the different sandbag efforts with things like the refreshed batteries that were needed to maintain the radio communications that were so important. On my travels I got to see the flood from almost every perspective… all of the trouble spots, the extremely slippery dikes, the people who threw bags into place for as long as there were bags to throw, and the earth-moving equipment that was always driven with the cab door on the dry side of the dike in case the machine were to slide into the river and the operator needed to bail out.

Called home

    As word of the dike failures developed, I called my wife, Annie. Cell phones weren’t that good 20 years ago, but I got through. Her response came in some very understandable terms… that I needed to find a way to get my butt back across the Red Lake River to where we lived on the Point.  

    With water several feet deep on the south side of the Murray Bridge there just wasn’t any to drive through it. But thanks to a Zavoral Construction Co. payloader operator, who let me ride in the cab with him, I did get across. He was delivering sandbags to the dike break area. Once there, he tried to dump the bags into the bucket of a tracked backhoe from where the bags could be placed. Most of the bags spilled into the three feet or more deep water that was pouring in from the Red Lake River. After completing the semi-successful transfer of bags, he edged his machine close to the backhoe and instructed me to jump from the cab of the payloader to the top of backhoe’s engine compartment.

    That scary maneuver accomplished, the backhoe operator edged his machine toward a portion of the earthen dike that remained in place. Then he brought the bucket back up to near where I was on top of the engine compartment and told me to get in.  With me in the bucket, he extended it out to the dike and dumped me off on dry ground. From there, I was then able to walk the few blocks home.

Toured the neighborhood

    At home, after cooking some steaks on the grill (yes, really), we did the dishes and went on a tour of the neighborhood. It appeared that there was good reason to hope that our homes would stay dry. But things began to deteriorate as evening came on. Water kept coming up… both on the streets and, in our case, up through the ground and onto the basement floor.

    Our floodfighting effort, with me running the wet vac and Annie dumping the water out on the street, lasted until about 2 a.m. or so. That’s when National Guard troops ordered us out ahead of the waters that were by then coming up the street from both directions — from the Red Lake River to the east and from the Red River to the west.

    Dropped off at the Senior Citizens Center, which was the collection site, we sat there for several hours before getting our ride via helicopter to Northland Community College. From there we had a bus ride to the new, not yet opened Crookston Central High School. That was the landing spot for all coming from East Grand Forks. They recorded who we were and where we would be in an effort to try to keep track of us. From the school we were driven to the University of Minnesota-Crookston where we were assigned cots on the floor of Lysaker Gymnasium.

    That’s when a very harsh realization occurred. We were homeless with just had the clothes we had on.

    That afternoon, using all of my influence as a first-term Polk County commissioner, I snagged a ride back to my car in East Grand Forks. I had left it on high ground next to the BN Railroad tracks. I had read some years before that railroads built their tracks on high ground whenever possible. Right next to the tracks would be high ground.

    Back in East Grand Forks, when I went to start the car the battery was dead. With the help of a boy from our neighborhood and his friend, who had the jumper cables, I was soon on my way back to Crookston.  

Stopped in Fisher

    On the way, I made a stop in Fisher where Annie’s brother Ron Parkin and his wife, Bev, lived. On hearing about the cots in Lysaker Gymnasium, Ron wasn’t about to have us live anywhere else but with him and Bev… and we did for the next 18 days. During that time, the women from the three churches in Fisher took turns making meals for us flood victims. They did a great job. Fantastic food.  I think some competition might have developed between the different churchwomen to see who could put out the best food. It was definitely a three-way tie.

    Funny thing about stress, I ate like a pig for those 18 days… and lost 10 pounds.

    From there, the story moves to the recovery period but save that for another time.

    While we East Siders still refer to times and events as either pre-flood or post-flood, that description is fading. What will always be unforgettable, though, is how everybody — friends and neighbors along people we never knew and who didn’t know us — did everything they could to help us to recover. Because of all of them and the federal and state government assistance that was provided, East Grand Forks became the poster child for flood recovery. We came back better than before.

    So, believe me when I say that there is no blessing greater than to have our many friends and to live in these United States.

    Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board of Commissioners.