Fargo survived the great flood of 1997. Once the Red River had crested, the threat subsided, and the water moved north, the city let one big sigh of relief. We, with a little help from above it seemed, had managed to save the city.
After three hard weeks of sandbagging and studies, I decided to take a weekend at home and travel as far as Bemidji to visit my brother and his girl friend to attend a concert at Bemidji State University.
As I drove out of Fargo that Friday afternoon after the flood, it was like driving through a war zone. Living and working in Fargo during the flooding, nothing quite prepared me for the devastation in the countryside.
The shoulders of most of the roads between Moorhead and Borup, Minnesota were washed away by the force of the overland flooding. Homes and farmsteads had water marks. Permanent earthern dikes built to protect farmsteads years ago were battered and smashed at places. Rugs, cloths, and family items hung in yards.
But the traffic was the most concerning.
My car seemed to be the only private vehicle on the road. While Fargo had been spared, the work continued in Halstead, Hendrum, and other river towns. The memory of the loss of Ada was etched in everyone’s minds – the sight of almost two thousand people forced from their homes with ice covered water rushing through the streets and people rescued with the help of payloaders and massive trucks to reach above the bitterly cold water.
At most major intersections, in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest town, National Guard soldiers directed traffic as convoys of trucks filled with sand and troops rushed to save the small towns along the river.
While the mood in Fargo was one of joy and relief, there was little of that to be seen along the roads of Clay and Norman County that day…
Saturday, April 19th, 1997, I made the drive from Mahnomen to Bemidji. The night before, news was coming out of Grand Forks that sections of the city along the river were being evacuated. Nothing prepared me for what I was about to see.
Caravans of cars and buses streamed along Highway 2 as the dikes in Grand Forks continued to crumble under the might crest of the river. The water plant had gone under. The downtown, started on fire due to an electrical short caused by the rising water, burned in an inferno with firefighters watching in horror, unable to reach the fire due to the raging river running through the town.
The exodus was almost biblical. One hundred thousand people streaming from Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, the largest evacuation in American history was happening and I was witnessing the mass of humanity looking for refuge.
I don’t remember much about the concert that night – though I remember the feeling. There was a loss of innocence that day for the region, and for myself. It was painful.
But it was also inspiring.
The shelters were empty within days – with the thousands of refuges taken in by family, friends, and strangers just willing to share their food and shelter with their neighbors in need. Food, money, clothing – help of every kind, piled into the area.
As cruel as nature was, as mean and angry as the Red River was that spring, as destructive as its power was…it could not destroy the spirit of the people. It as not powerful enough to destroy human kindness. It was not withstand the power of the friendship.