With the stench of raw sewage and smoke in the air, this city lay abandoned Monday under the rising floodwaters of the Red River, while many of its residents huddled in a hangar at a nearby Air Force base to begin the long wait before they can return home.
From the air, Grand Forks looked as though it had been engulfed by a lake. The smoke was from a weekend fire that erupted downtown at the height of the flooding, the sewage a sign of a crippled water and sanitation system that has left the town of 50,000 uninhabitable.
President Clinton has declared the Red River valley a disaster area twice this year - after a savage winter and again after the flooding. He is expected to survey the scene today and meet with some of the 4,000 refugees in the hangar.
Authorities said it could be two to three weeks before the town, the second-largest in North Dakota, can be occupied by residents.
Lines of sandbags still can be seen in some places. But the sandbags were swamped by the floodwaters, which destroyed wealthy subdivisions of three-story mansions and more modest neighborhoods of small houses and trailer parks.
National Guard troops returning from house-to-house searches said they saw stuffed animals and sofas bobbing in the icy murk and heard alarm clocks buzzing from bedroom windows.
Grand Forks’ traumatized citizens tend to talk about the rising Red River waters as a personal adversary, a not-unexpected visit by a natural enemy that has to be defeated. The phrase “our fight” crops up repeatedly in conversations with flood victims. And, before it was forced to shut down Monday morning when its broadcast facilities were flooded, the local television station, KDOZ, carried a flood story logo that said simply, “The Fight.”
“We just keep hitting the challenges as they occur. It keeps coming at us, and we just have to keep fighting,” said Grand Forks’ feisty mayor, Pat Owens, whose own home is under water.
The battles have been mostly lost, such as when the city’s water supply was exhausted on Sunday. Another battle was lost when authorities were forced to close United Hospital and evacuate its seriously ill patients by helicopter to Minneapolis. Hospital officials quickly set up a first-aid station at the National Guard Armory.
At a press briefing Monday, about the only good news that police spokesman Byron Sieber could impart was that emergency crews had successfully installed generators at a facility two miles north of the city, thereby allowing the plant, C.F. Industries Inc., to maintain its ammonia cooling operations. If the plant had not restored some power, Sieber said, it would have had to vent large amounts of toxic ammonia gas, resulting in a hazard to surrounding residents. The plant’s anhydrous ammonia is used for fertilizer by the area’s farms.
Authorities also spoke hopefully about a new dike that emergency workers were building Monday on the south side of the city in an effort to keep rising water from spreading further westward toward the University of North Dakota campus, which has become home to the state and federal emergency operations center. The center has already been forced to move twice because of rapidly rising water.
Public works crews on loan from other North Dakota cities and Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota kept a steady stream of heavy trucks running from area gravel pits to the Washington Street dike, which officials said would be about 12 blocks long when completed.
Students whose Grand Forks schools are closed started enrolling Monday at nearby rural schools, where they confronted unfamiliar textbooks and often lacked such basics as a pen or paper.
“They’re in semishock. They just left their homes 48 hours ago,” said Larimore school Superintendent John Jankowski. “When you’re told to leave your home, do you think about taking your homework with you?”
His rural district of almost 600 students had already admitted 20 young refugees.
The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks simply canceled the last two weeks of its semester.
Many people left their homes reluctantly, only gradually coming to terms with the extent of the massive flooding and the inevitable hardship and disruption that it would cause. One of these was Gil Midstokke, 78, a retired construction worker.
“I was going to stick it out,” he said Monday as he sat on a cot in a hangar at Grand Forks Air Force Base, the main shelter for the town’s refugees. Late last week, Midstokke’s wife left the area to stay with friends, leaving him alone with the family cat, Muffie.
On Saturday, he said, he politely declined an offer by the National Guard to evacuate him. But later that afternoon, with his basement rapidly filling with water, two sheriff’s deputies approached Midstokke’s house in a boat and gave him no choice. “You’re getting out,” they told him.
“I was disappointed,” Midstokke said. “I looked back and the cat was on the stairway looking at me. She knew I was leaving, and that made it worse.”