Fighting to choke back the emotions she’s held in check for most of the past week, Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens told President Clinton on Tuesday: “You bring us hope.”
And hope was all that most people were expecting from the president, who came to the region to see firsthand the incredible destruction caused by an ice storm, a blizzard, the flood and last weekend’s devastating downtown fire.
Local officials and citizens alike said they were satisfied that Clinton will now understand the painful series of blows.
Before Clinton spoke to flood victims Tuesday afternoon, he was greeted by a sign that read: “Welcome to Water World Mr. President.”
It was a glimmer of wry humor in a five-day period that has overflowed with human tragedy.
“Be good to yourself,” Clinton told a crowd of about 3,000 huddled in a giant airplane hangar at Grand Forks Air Force Base. “You don’t have to be ashamed if you’re heartbroken.”
Olive-drab cots lined the back of the hangar where Clinton spoke. Thousands of dislocated Grand Forks residents are staying at the base because their homes are flooded by the Red River, which continued Tuesday to hover at 54 feet, 26 feet above flood stage.
Clinton said he’d never seen such a series of catastrophes as severe as those that have pelted the Grand Forks region.
“When I saw pictures of some of you stacking sandbags in a blizzard, I thought at first that I had a problem with the reception on my television,” Clinton said.
Air Force One arrived at Grand Forks Air Force Base at about 11:30 a.m. Clinton greeted local officials, then climbed aboard a helicopter for a personal tour of the devastation.
The president nodded his head in wonder as he looked down on the Red River Valley. Three-fourths of Grand Forks and virtually all of East Grand Forks, Minn., are submerged.
After his flight, Clinton took an hour to listen to the men and women who have been battling the flood, fire and ice tell him about the problems they face now.
Owens spoke movingly of the city’s plight.
“The hardest part is going to be when people are taken back to their homes, when they see the damage that has been done,” Owens said.
Owens, who like most Grand Forks residents has been a refugee, joked that she had a hard time deciding what to wear to meet the president.
“You look good,” Clinton said.
But Owens answered her own question: “What I wear,” she said, “is the heart and soul of my community.”
Clinton reciprocated with promises of money. He authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse local governments for 100 percent of their flood expenses, rather than the usual 75 percent. He asked FEMA to add Minnesota and South Dakota counties to the grant program. And he asked Congress to authorize an additional $200 million in relief, raising the total Clinton has requested for these Midwest disasters to $448 million.
Curt Kreun of East Grand Forks told Clinton how painful it was to see neighborhood dikes fail. He said he tried to console his neighbors. “You take and hold them in your arms and you tell them it will be all right,” Kreun said.
Grand Forks City Engineer Ken Vein delivered the worst news. He spoke of the “domino effect” of water cascading over dikes and destroying the city. “Some parts of the city may never be rebuilt,” Vein said. “There are homes that are floating. The water is eroding new channels.”
Vein said it may take a month before the water and sewer systems are running at all, and much longer before they are fully restored.
Among the evacuees who stayed to hear Clinton was Paul Trettel. He has been staying at the air base shelter since Friday, and he admits it’s been a tough time.
Trettel is a truck driver. Or was. Like hundreds of others, he’s not sure what the future will bring for his job.
Trettel listened closely as Clinton spoke, a strained look on his strong but haggard face. Later, Trettel fought back emotions as he discussed Clinton’s message.
“We were hoping he would answer simple things, like when showers will be available. Where do we go from here,” Trettel said. Although the president didn’t answer such questions, Trettel was glad Clinton came.
“It’ll mean a lot toward getting people back in their homes.”
Many of those who are staying at the shelter seemed to agree that the biggest value of Clinton’s visit was to call attention to the seriousness of the disaster here. They also agreed that the programs Clinton announced will be much appreciated.
But, they said, the president didn’t answer their pressing immediate questions: What happens next? How do I contact missing loved ones? Will I have a job? Will I have a home?
Overall, people in the converted hangar showed little emotion as the president spoke.
Julie Britsch, pastor of the Petersburg and Dahlen Lutheran churches who has been working as a chaplain in the shelters since Friday, said the lack of emotion didn’t surprise her.
“I think people are really numb. I think it’s going to take a long time for it to soak in.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE DAMAGE TOLL EXTENT: Eighty percent to 90 percent of the city flooded. EVACUATIONS: 90 percent to 95 percent of the city of 50,000 leave. RIVER LEVEL: Crested at 54 feet late Tuesday, 26 feet over flood stage. DOWNTOWN FIRE: The ruins of nine buildings still smoldered Tuesday, three days after a fire started. PHONES: Boats brought food, clothes and supplies to 17 people marooned inside a U S West switching center. WATER PROBLEMS: The city water system is contaminated and will have to be flushed, chlorinated and rechecked, which could take weeks.