By Bill Hudson

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The historic Grand Forks flooding occurred 20 years ago, on April 18 and 19 of 1997.

The iconic image most still recall is when the raging Red River rose higher and faster than anyone expected or could prepare, breaching sandbag levees and inundating wide swaths of the twin river cities.

But soon, what flood waters didn’t consume and destroy, raging fires quickly did. Unable to fight the fires from the streets, attempts to extinguish the flames tearing through two blocks of downtown Grand Forks was done with aerial tankers and water dropped from a helicopter.

(credit: CBS)

“I think ’97 really set the benchmark for a major flood,” said Mike Deweese, a National Weather Service hydrologist.

Deweese and Steve Buan were both young hydrologists working in the river forecasting section of the NWS. Both of them now recall the abnormally-wet fall and record winter snowfall that led up to the flood of a lifetime.

In many regards, it is now referred to a 500-year flood event.

“This is something that built up over November, December, January, February, March,” Buan said. “And really unleashed, you know, historically almost late, after spring had already started.”

On the night of April 18, 1997, civil defense sirens blared for all to evacuate the flood fight. The swollen Red River began breaching sand bag levees that volunteers had worked at a furious pace to build.

Thousands of homes and businesses were suddenly under water. From the air, the devastation was breathtaking.

Sixty-thousand residents of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were ordered to evacuate. For those who couldn’t find shelter with friends and families in surrounding towns, cots were set up west of town at the Grand Forks Air Base.

“You can replace things, you can’t replace people, and so it’s that getting the warning out,” Buan said.

(credit: CBS)

But even when displaced residents thought the devastation couldn’t get any worse, it did. After floodwaters engulfed the entire downtown, fires began in several buildings.

“We can’t get trucks in there, the hydrants are underwater, we have no pressure,” said an exhausted Grand Forks firefighter in archival footage.

The raging infernos could only be fought from the air with U.S. Forest Service tanker aircraft, dumping huge plumes of chemical fire retardant onto rooftops. In the final analysis, 11 businesses were eventually lost.

Still, many ask that with so much devastation caused by nature, could we ever again see such a flood?

“One thing we’ve learned over the years is you can always expect the unexpected,” Deweese said. “Mother Nature has a way of teaching us new lessons every year.”

Among the many businesses lost, first by floods and then fire, was the Grand Forks Herald.

Amazingly however, the paper kept publishing from a makeshift newsroom in a Manvel, North Dakota school, and later printed each edition at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

For the paper’s tremendous dedication to informing the displaced communities, the Herald would be awarded with the coveted Pulitzer Prize in journalism for heroic community service.

[graphiq id=”jVUYJEKGfBz” title=”Flood Total and per Capita Fatalities since 1996″ width=”600″ height=”683″ url=”” ]

Bill Hudson