Authorities went door-to-door Saturday, ordering residents still in their homes to leave after the Red River overran miles of sandbag dikes and sent dirty water washing through their neighborhoods.
Fire broke out in two downtown buildings but the floodwaters were so deep that firefighters could not get to them. Instead, they evacuated the area and sent in planes dropping chemicals ont he blaze. Twenty people in one building were rescued and there were no reports of injuries.
Most of Grand Forks’ 50,000 residents abandoned the city earlier Saturday as the water moved in. But police and National Guardsmen tried to get the holdouts to leave, threatening arrest for those who refused. In neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn., officials were also trying to get people to leave.
Mayor Pat Owens said people should prepare to leave Grand Forks for as long as two weeks, saying it would take that long to fix the city’s flooded water plant.
“Lack of services is going to make life difficult and perhaps dangerous for residents throughout the city, even those who are not inundated by water,” Owens said.
Officials said 60 percent of Grand Forks, a city of 10-1/2 square miles, was covered with water. Police Lt. Byron Sieber said he expected most of the city to be flooded.
“We kind of laid out grids on the city as what we see as particular neighborhoods, and we’re seeing those go down one by one,” Sieber said. “There are a few high areas, but they’re rare.”
President Clinton promised federal agencies would help with the flood and its aftermath. “We will be there to assist not only during the flood, but when the cleanup begins,” the president said in a statement. The president has previously declared North Dakota a disaster area.
The flooding also knocked out power to the Grand Forks police department, including its radio communications. Officer Joann Chaput said the city’s 65 police officers had to rely on cellular phones while it was being fixed.
Joann Hurley left her home on a National Guard truck at 4 a.m. Saturday.
“This is frightening,” she said. “None of us believed this could happen.”
She regretted “just walking out and leaving all your treasures,” adding: “I’m 72 years old. You have many treasures.”
An Air Force base 10 miles west of town prepared to accept as many as 5,000 refugees. Other shelters were readied at three eastern North Dakota colleges, the closest of which was 35 miles south. Long lines of fleeing traffic headed west out of the city.
Karen Watt had time only to pack two small suitcases with a change of clothes and food for her dog, Otis, before she was evacuated shortly after 8 a.m. Saturday.
“Our lives are more important than furniture,” she said as she sat at Red River High School, waiting to be sent on to another shelter.
Nearby, Arlen Boulduc sipped coffee as he kept watch over his six children, ranging from 3 to 19 years old.
“I don’t think there’s many people here who have been through this,” Boulduc said.
On the opposite side of the river, residents of part of East Grand Forks, Minn., also were evacuated Saturday after an 8-foot dike burst.
The break left an estimated 3,000 East Grand Forks residents with no way to get over a bridge into the rest of the city, said Lynn Stauss, mayor of the town of 8,500 people.
“We’ve been having National Guard going in and out by helicopter or by boat and evacuating these people,” Stauss said.
The Red River stood at about 53 feet at midday Saturday. The National Weather Service said the river would rise another foot, slowly over the next few days. Flood stage is 28 feet.
In the tabletop-flat Red River Valley, police said the water that swirled hip-deep around downtown buildings Saturday could linger for more than five days.
The river’s rise overwhelmed weeks of backbreaking work. Dikes built of clay and sandbags, in anticipation of the melt of a record winter snowfall that also flooded other wide areas of Minnesota and North Dakota, were washed away in hours.
The University of North Dakota, the state’s largest college, canceled the three weeks left in the spring semester.
In Fargo, 75 miles to the south, workers finished an earthen dike across the city’s southern half that cut off more than 300 homes, including a condominium owned by Gov. Ed Schafer.
“We’re on the wrong side of the dike,” Schafer said Saturday from Grand Forks, where he was helping to supervise emergency efforts.
Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness said the move was a kind of housing triage, meant to protect the rest of the city from the advancing water.
More than 300 North Dakota National Guardsmen were on call to help with the flood emergency, along with thousands of airmen at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. “Literally, we’ve got the whole base at our disposal,” said Maj. Gen. Keith Bjerke, commander of the North Dakota guard.
“I’m just convinced this disaster will be the worst in our history,” Schafer said.
“I think the worst part for us is, we don’t know how high it’s going to go,” said Kevin Pulst who was leaving along with his wife, Lisa, and two young sons.
When it’s all over, Lisa Pulst said, “I’m building a house on top of a hill in a desert.”