In 500-Year Flood, Finer Things Surface

N. Dakotans take stock as waters recede

Donovan Blue had never known a darker moment.

For 36 hours he sat in his kitchen, listening to the sound of the Red River pouring into his basement, waiting for word from his wife and children. Finally, as the floodwater reached the door, he hugged his two Great Danes, filled their dishes, and headed out alone - stopping for a moment to see his son's toy football bobbing in the muck.

As the National Guard Humvee cut a wake down 10th Avenue, he glanced back at his house and wondered what more the river could take from him.

The pungent water has begun to recede now. The helpless panic of the evacuation is gone, and the people of this elm-shaded river town are beginning to measure the scope of a millennial disaster. It will be weeks before some people can return to their homes, months before this town of 50,000 can celebrate its renaissance. In the meantime, though, the residents of Grand Forks are finding solace in the things the river could not wash away.

"I've got five feet of water in my basement, but I'm happy as a clam," Mr. Blue says, standing in his muddy driveway as his son, Donovan Jr., buzzes around him in a Batman imitation. On that grim night, in a hangar at the Grand Forks Air Force base, the boy spotted his father among thousands of refugees. Six days later, the Humane Society rescued his dogs, Thrasher and Dasher.

"I'm not a very religious person, but sometimes you've got to throw everything into God's hands," Blue says, fluffing his son's weedy brown hair. "We've been lucky. We'll rebuild."

The flood of 1997 has left 58,000 people homeless and wrought more than $1 billion in damage. During the height of the flood, much of downtown Grand Forks burned when a fire began and efforts to fight it were hampered by waters up to 10 feet deep. One week later, businesses and schools are closed indefinitely, and 3 million acres of farmland are soaking.

Despite the worst winter in recent memory, an ice storm that knocked out power for nine days, an April blizzard so fierce it was given a name (Hannah), a 500-year flood, and the downtown fire that would have topped the national news by itself, people in Grand Forks and the high Plains have met this season of pestilence with heroism and charity.

One week after the dikes broke, less than 1,000 people displaced by the flood are living in shelters. The vast majority have been taken in by friends, relatives, or complete strangers.

In each small town surrounding Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn., churches have opened their kitchens to provide meals, and schools have crammed in extra desks. Radio stations have pooled their resources, and employees of the Grand Forks Herald have worked tirelessly to produce a newspaper - despite the fire that destroyed their office.

And there are thousands of smaller triumphs.

There's the staff at Kirsten's Bridal in Grand Forks, who saved Megan Bradley's wedding dress from the flood by hanging it on a ceiling pipe. There's Brian Boeddeker, a Pembina County Sheriff's deputy who used a jet ski to rescue a three-day-old calf from a farmer's hayloft. There's Dave Schrum, who paid his six-man roofing crew to sandbag in Grand Forks for three days straight - losing his pickup and all his equipment in the process.

Down in Fargo, Dale Skatrud and Ray Husen helped a distraught young Mexican woman, whose home was destroyed by the flood, to find formula for her infant son. And there's Doug Bergum, head of Great Plains Software, who offered to "adopt" sometime-competitor Aatrix Software in Grand Forks after that firm lost everything.

The flood has also made heroes of many leaders.

Gen. Maurice Sagsveen of the National Guard came out of retirement and risked losing clients at his Bismarck, N.D., law practice to lead the Guard's relief efforts. Hetty Walker, mayor of tiny Pembina, N.D., helped convince disaster officials that her town had a good chance of saving itself - just in time for its bicentennial this July. And Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens, who labored for years behind the scenes at city hall, has proved to be a pillar of strength and optimism in her city's most desperate hour. People here call her, simply, "Mayor Pat."

"Our people have been through so much in the last three weeks and none of them have lost faith," Mayor Owens says. "That's what really makes me want to work harder for them. I always say, don't look back, it doesn't do any good."

In the past two weeks, North Dakota Gov. Ed Schaefer has sat in on dozens of meetings with civic leaders who've faced wrenching decisions. At times, he has had to offer advice he knows will deal a blow to many families. Through it all, he says, through the darkest moments of his state's worst-ever disaster, he's found comfort in a Biblical passage from the third chapter of Zephaniah.

"The King of Israel, Even the Lord, Is in the midst of thee, Thou shalt not see evil any more," it reads. "In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: And to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack."

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