Grand Forks will survive the floods

ome home, Sammy. We’re trying to save our city.”
Those are the words my mother said to me on the phone Thursday night. Idon’t think I’ve ever heard that exact matter-of-fact tone from her before.
I knew my hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota, was fighting off the flood of the century, but I downplayed the chance that anything exciting (or disastrous) would ever happen in Grand Forks. After all, I grew up in that town, and, to be honest, it is routinely dull.
I had been skeptical of the coverage on the television news. The limitations of the cameras and the journalists let us see only the very worst aspects, not really putting things into perspective.
So when I called home and found out that the crest prediction was underestimated and that at 52 feet very bad things would happen, I decided I had better listen to my mom and get my butt home.
I rode a Greyhound bus to Fargo on Friday morning, and together with my girlfriend, Christina, we decided to attempt the 75-mile drive north to Grand Forks.
Our drive was lengthened by about an hour because flooding had covered portions of Interstate 29 north of Fargo.
Shortly past Arthur, N.D., there was a point where North Dakota National Guard troops slowed down traffic and escorted us behind a military Humvee. No passing. No speeding. Things were orderly and it was clear that there was tension in the valley.
When we pulled into town early Friday night, things were still basically holding together.
There were people, including my brother and father, tossing sandbags from arm to arm, reinforcing levees that were protecting the bulk of the city. The background noise was constantly filled with sounds of tractors and pumps. Television and National Guard helicopters buzzed across the sky frequently, and once in a while the town’s civil defense sirens roared.
A city with about 20 radio stations had been reduced to one. KCNN, whose building is now completely under water, was actively participating in the fight by helping dispatch volunteers and emergency vehicles to the areas in most trouble.
My own house is high enough that it was in no immediate danger, but Christina’s house was on the wrong side of the secondary, or “contingency,” dike.
We were warned by the city that if the primary dike broke, their basement would be flooded.
Her family and I spent about three hours hastily emptying the basement and filling their living room with furniture, old photographs, tools from her father’s workshop and boxes of books, childhood toys and clothes.
We would know it was time to stop trying when their neighborhood was officially listed in the “Mandatory Evacuation Zone.” That’s a phrase I had never heard before. It kind of sounds like a military term — no-fly zone, neutral zone, demilitarized zone, war zone — and if your house was in it, you had to give up and leave.
It was about 2 a.m. on Saturday when my girlfriend’s house joined the list. Thoughts were running through my head like: Why didn’t we grab this or that? Why didn’t we start packing up earlier? Could we have saved the dikes if we had been there to help sandbag.
Christina’s parents grabbed their dog and pre-packed suitcases. They locked the door, and we all got out of there. The contingency dike went up behind us, and we all spent the night driving back to Fargo and listening, stunned, to the 24-hour radio coverage.
According to reports, the levee downtown broke soon after we left — and the emergency management center that had been at the Civic Auditorium was moved to dry land at the University of North Dakota.
The contingency dike failed sometime in the middle of the night and the water claimed neighborhood after neighborhood. The water treatment plant went, and so did the police station. My hometown was being gobbled up foot by heartaching foot — and I was fleeing to higher ground.
Sometime on early Saturday morning a fire started downtown. Before it was under control, it had spread to 11 separate downtown buildings, including the Grand Forks Herald Newspaper where I was a reporter last summer. Downtown Grand Forks isn’t big — that must be about half of the buildings.
As of Sunday afternoon, there was no fresh water in Grand Forks, but there was still some electricity. My parents have decided to stay and help as long as possible. I think they are the lucky ones. Here in Minneapolis, I can only read the papers and watch Headline News.
I have always beamed with pride whenever I saw North Dakota mentioned in the local or national press. When the University of North Dakota Sioux won championships in hockey and women’s basketball last month, I clipped the newspaper stories and relished in the attention my city was getting.
Sunday, I watched with a heavy heart as our heroic Mayor Pat Owens spoke on national television. She summed up the attitude of the town by reminding us of the two things that we must not forget: There have been no deaths from this flood, and we will rebuild our town.
Grand Forks will never be able to rebuild the life we had before the Red River washed the neighborhoods of my childhood away, but in fighting the flood, our town proved to itself and the world that it is more than just a collection of people and buildings.
From the University students throwing sandbags on the levees to the all night radio announcers, from the exhausted city officials to the National Guard troops, my hometown is a community of heroes. And I couldn’t be more proud.
Sam Black is the Daily’s opinions editor.