The waters of the Red River started to recede from the streets Wednesday after cresting at 54.11 feet and innundating all but about a third of the city of Grand Forks.
“We are in a recovery mode now,” said Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens. “It’s the best news we could have.”
Even so, Grand orks and its Minnesota neighbor, East Grand Forks, from which some 41,000 evacuees are believed to have fled, is still months - if not years - from normal.
Elizabeth Dole, national director of the American Red Cross, motorboated through a wet, burned-out downtown Grand Forks on Wednesday. She said she was reminded of the devastating Midwestern floods of 1993.
“It’s incredible,” said Dole. “It’s like a ghost town … Water as far as you can see.”
Dole then spent more than an hour visiting the bedraggled flood refugees who have taken up shelter in the Red Cross-run center at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Since the flood that forced the evacuation of most of the city of 51,000 people, evacuees numbering hundreds to nearly 3,000 have taken up shelter at the air base.
Dole pledged that the Red Cross will be “the last to leave.” She said she saw no letdown in the mood of Grand Forks residents, but warned that disappointment will come when displaced residents are allowed back into their homes.
One of the flood victims who shook Dole’s hand was Jeff Boe. He appreciated the moral support. “It just makes me feel better. After all the devastation, I just wanted to lay down and cry,” said Boe. “It helps a lot.” Authorities said Wednesday that it will be at least three weeks before residents are even escorted in to take a look at their homes and businesses.
Police spokesman Lt. Byron Sieber said that anyone now caught in the city without authorization faces a fine of up to $1,000 and immediate arrest. “To this point, we’ve been confronting everyone, and convincing them to leave,” Sieber said. “But we’re setting up a jail at the air base, if that’s what it takes.”
And as desperate as evacuees are to return - they are pleading to talk radio for news of their homes - there is a growing sense in Grand Forks that their city might not be restored. When the Red River recedes, it may take more than water away as it falls back towards its banks.
And despite a visit earlier in the week by President Clinton, promising that federal largess would rebuild the region when the river fell, there were as well some words of caution.
“I think its important to tell people that nothing is going to make you whole,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. “There is no program that is going to solve all of the problems that flood victims and fire victims face.”
News that clean water might be piped into Grand Forks as early as this weekend was tempered by word that it would only go to a tiny fraction of the city, and that it would scarcely amount to a trickle of the 8 million gallons the city usually uses in a day.