Students keep eye on flooded hometowns

Eric Dregni

When Rimon Bengiamin watches television footage of his hometown, he says, it doesn’t seem real.
A University sophomore and native of Grand Forks, N.D., Bengiamin said he has to strain to recognize well-known landmarks as flood waters swell around them. His is just one of thousands of stories about the flood of the century.
“My parents were running errands at the University (of North Dakota) on Friday, and when they tried to go home, our street was blockaded,” he said.
Bengiamin’s parents are now staying in the Twin Cities until they can go back, hopefully in a couple of weeks. “To find out how high the water is, we would call our answering machine on the first floor. As long as it responded, we knew the water hadn’t gotten that high.”
University student Kristin Bowles hails from Grand Forks and watched the destruction unfold from the Twin Cities. “I saw my dance studio burning on TV,” she said. “It was an old, historic downtown. Now it doesn’t look like there’s anything left,” she said.
Bowles’ family is holing up in a Minneapolis hotel until the water level drops. “Since my family has nothing, we went shopping at Target here, and they ran into lots of people from Grand Forks,” she said.
“Whenever I can go back, I need to go back,” Bowles says again and again, and adds that one of her friends is flying in from Atlanta to help out. “I can’t tell you how many friends have their houses flooded. They told me that the whole town smells like you-know-what.”
But no live broadcast or news from friends can portray what it’s like in the heart of the disaster zone.
On Sunday, at the water’s edge in southwestern Grand Forks, a news anchor was sunning himself in a lawn chair and puffing on a pipe as his assistants handed him the latest reports on the flood.
Every major news station was vying for a position where a Ford pickup had just got stuck in four feet of water in front of a submerged Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. Four reporters put on their rubber waders and went into the water with their microphones for a live report.
Meanwhile, six blocks away, neighbors were desperately sandbagging to keep water out of one of the last dry areas of Grand Forks, Columbine Court.
The coulee running behind their houses became a river, and the storm sewers began flooding the streets. An exhausted college student explained that his aunt is the only relative whose house hadn’t flooded, and he was going to do everything he could to keep it dry.
He led the fight as volunteers hurriedly covered the utility holes with stacks of sandbags. The workers are fearful of what happened in Fargo, N.D., when a manhole cover shot 80 feet into the air because of water pressure.
While the battle rages, residents began to pack their bags, knowing the Red River had not yet crested.
A few blocks away, a couple of guys played catch as the sun beamed down on one of the most beautiful days this spring.
They refused to leave until ordered for fear of looting, claiming that a friend had already had his door broken down.
Despite fears of thievery and rumors about two college students wanting to blow up a dike in Fargo, the flood of 1997 has brought the people of the Red River Valley together more than ever before.
While television crews buzzed about the dramatic footage of a burning and flooded city, citizens, volunteers and members of the National Guard got to work to protect what was left and provide comfort for those left homeless.
The radio buzzed with phone numbers of people in nearby towns opening their houses and refrigerators to flood refugees. Neighbors often met for the first time as they joined either to protect their property or volunteer at the many relief stations.
Grand Forks is not only a strong community now, but also a war zone.
Humvees and helicopters zipped through town to assess the damage and look for people who refused to leave.
The local television station joined with its competing radio station to broadcast essential information on how to either purify water with bleach or boil it for at least 10 minutes. Their telephone service was down as they reported from a building surrounded by water, cut off from the rest of the world, yet still the center of its attention.
The inaccessible downtown was a bizarre combination of water and fire as smoke billowed to the south, evidence that the town was in ruins.
Bowles said she thinks that Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens summed it up when she said that if there are no casualties, “we can say we won the battle.”
Bowles also praised President Bill Clinton and his offers of flood relief. “I was very impressed with what Clinton did,” Bowles said. “We’ve already begun working on the paper work, and he’s helped make it easier for those who need help right away.”
Upstream, the level of the Red River in Fargo began to descend on Sunday, and residents around the flooded Oak Grove school decided to celebrate by having a barbecue in their waders.
However, many houses remain in danger as the sump pumps hum 24 hours a day to keep back the rush of water, and the dikes continually erode.
In Fargo and Moorhead the Red River is not expected to recede to its banks for at least two weeks. While Fargo begins to relax, Manitoba braces for the northward flow of the Red River to its mouth at Lake Winnipeg.
After the flood in Ada, Minn., people returning to the town after evacuation meet lawns filled with debris and water-damaged furniture. The drama there is over. Now comes the slow rebuilding. A young woman at the gas station joked that they can’t even go to the VFW, since it’s still home to the National Guard. “So we have to drive 10 miles to get drunk.”