They rode in tandem, a steel-coated cavalry galloping through a sterile landscape of wind-whipped trees and newly formed lakes and ponds.
One bus is a shiny Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center mobile clinic on its third disaster relief mission since 1992. The second coach is smaller, a converted city bus owned by the VA mobile clinic coordinator.
The Spokane buses, which held a nurse practitioner, a registered nurse and a driver who handles medical paperwork, left Monday for one of the worst flooding disasters in a decade.
Grand Forks is the third largest city in North Dakota, with 50,000 residents. Last week, only a few thousand remained, after the Red River swallowed 90 percent of the town.
That’s 10 square miles, an area big enough to cover the neighborhoods from Gonzaga University to the western edge of West Central, from the Spokane River to Indiana Avenue.
The Spokane medical team traveled 1,289 miles in 27 hours, arriving in Grand Forks skinny on sleep and fat on caffeine and munchies.
Bearing supplies such as sutures, tetanus boosters and a limited supply of fresh water, the crew provided help to residents soaked with problems. More than 1,000 people walked up to the slender bus door in the first two days, hundreds more than it handled in Hurricane Andrew in Florida or the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles.
The medical team probably will stay for weeks, working more than 12 hours a day to tackle a stream of minor medical problems.
“Who knows how long it’s going to be?” said clinic coordinator Dave Draper, 47, with a shrug.
This town has suffered plenty. It’s been buffeted by a winter that brought record snowfall, a stunner blizzard and ice storm, and now a 500-year flood. And that doesn’t even count the fires that have gutted 11 buildings downtown.
The main industries in Grand Forks used to be a sugar beet plant, a french-fry factory, a lumber mill and farming. Now an overgrown river licks at the factories and the fields.
The city’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Burned buildings are twisted erector sets planted in piles of bricks. The newspaper building burned down, along with a theater and apartment buildings. The downtown smells charred, with hints of sewage and diesel fuel.
There’s no running water, and coffee’s precious. Portable toilets are everywhere, sprouting in front of the open hotels, gas stations and shelters.
The sewers are flooded. Some homes are floating down streets. Swingsets are drowned. Parks are swimming pools.
Cars are scattered in the streets, nuzzled against trees, and clustered in parking lots.
“This is nuts,” said Brandon Hass, who waited in a National Guard truck to pick up a 66-year-old man reluctant to leave his home. “It’s ridiculous. We’ve been kicked pretty hard this year.”
The nation has tried to soften nature’s blow. President Clinton promised help. So did the military, the state and service organizations such as the Salvation Army. Thrown into the mix is Veteran Affairs, a government agency best known for helping people who’ve served in the military.
The Spokane mobile clinic is one of six in the country. It’s a $750,000 sleek creature with eagles and ravens painted on the outside, and three examination tables, an EKG machine, stethoscopes and other medical equipment inside. It was the only VA bus sent to Grand Forks.
The three-member team was rounded up in hours last Monday morning. Besides driving his own bus, Draper doubles as a registered nurse.
Barbara Johnson, 43, is a nurse practitioner. She left Spokane just as she was trying to make a final offer on a house. This is the first disaster relief trip for both of them.
Mobile clinic driver John Heston, 58, is the disaster king. He calls the bus “my baby” and waxes it three times a year. His resume is the VA bus, which is painted with “John Heston, Driver, 34 Years Safe Driving” on both outside doors. Most of that time was spent at the helm of a Greyhound.
The clinic opened for business Wednesday morning in front of the National Guard Armory, on the western outskirts of town where the river didn’t spread. A line formed almost immediately. By 7 p.m., 347 people had passed through the clinic’s three tiny rooms.
Most flood victims needed tetanus booster shots, because of the contaminated water soaking into homes. But the occasional person suffered broken ribs, asthma, a sprained ankle or eye injuries. Children had rashes.
“I’m physically exhausted,” Heston said at the end of the first day, gulping a hamburger before returning to the bus for nightly paperwork. “I don’t have enough energy to sit here and eat.”
On Thursday, the VA team recruited extra nurses from the local hospital and clinic and a doctor, flown in from California as part of a disaster-relief team. A vaccination station was set up under an awning next to the bus.
Still the line kept growing, swelling to 35 people long at busy points and moving quickly. Workers treated 689 people in 12 hours - more than the Spokane VA hospital handles in a single day.
Patients rubbed their arms and joked with Heston. They kept remembering things they had lost.
The flood victims were told they needed the tetanus shots before trying to clean up the sludge, sewage, and rainbow swirls of fuel in the water soaking their homes.
“I’ve got to do something,” said Delories Deitz. Her home wasn’t flooded, but she planned to help clean up her daughters’ homes. “I’ve got 15 people staying in my house and I haven’t left in seven days.”
After the bus closed its doors Thursday, the workers were even more drained. At 7:30 p.m. they ate popcorn on automatic and stared into a TV in Draper’s bus.
On Friday, Johnson lost her voice, yet still kept working.
Steeped in loss
Heston is the clinic’s unofficial host, the man who tries to clean his bus every night.
He is a barrel of a man whose aggressive belly is highlighted by a slung-low belt and a cowboy swagger. He is a borderline diabetic who shakes Sweet ‘n’ Low into his coffee but buys Twinkies for a midnight snack. He could make friends with a piece of wood.
“What you guys are going through is something back in our area - we have no concept of this,” Heston said to Vern Volk, who waited for a vaccination.
Volk really didn’t either, until the water rose. He used to live in East Grand Forks, but he’s pretty sure his home has left its foundation and pinballed down the river toward Winnipeg. He moved to his mother’s house in Grand Forks, but then she was evacuated. Volk wore the same outfit for five days before finding new clothes.
He moved to his brother’s house north of town, where family members staged a final fight against the river and won, keeping the home safe. Volk called the river “she.”
“We got mad,” he said. “We said, no more. We’ve paid our price to her. Enough is enough. She’s taken too much already.”
The VA bus has been steeped in loss. Two weeks after arriving in Spokane in 1992, the mobile clinic was flown in a C-5 cargo plane to Florida for Hurricane Andrew. The crew stayed about six weeks, first setting up shop in the parking lot of a flattened Howard Johnson’s restaurant.
Two years later, the bus and its crew traveled to Los Angeles after the Northridge earthquake. They headed straight for the Northridge VA Hospital, which split in half during the quake. The Spokane bus returned after a month.
With more than 100,000 miles logged, the clinic usually travels to towns like Libby, Mont., Kettle Falls, Wash., and Wenatchee to treat veterans where they live. A backup van is handling the routes while the clinic is in North Dakota.
Here, the bus latched onto another disaster, which hit some more than others. One man lost $360,000 worth of uninsured pulltabs and gambling equipment. Another only had water in his basement.
Kenny Getsman, 22, had just moved into his home seven months ago. He is developmentally disabled, and his special-needs apartment complex is now flooded. Caregivers dropped him at his mother’s home. He stood in front of the bus, rocking while his mother got a tetanus shot. He was treated for a thick cough.
“It’s not that easy,” his mother Pam Getsman said. “He’s afraid and nervous and doesn’t know what to do.” Some people reacted by joking, shrugging. Some cried. Their voices shook. The word that’s used is “devastating.” Some just gave up.
Shannon Steinke has already moved to Fargo, about 80 miles south of Grand Forks, washing his hands of his home. With a wife three weeks away from giving birth, he wasn’t taking chances on a hobbled hospital. His job has already transferred him. The couple is staying in a hotel in Fargo, after escaping with two suitcases of clothes.
“It came up fast,” said Steinke, as he waited for a tentanus shot after returning briefly to his former Grand Forks office. “I got woken up, and there was water coming down my street. I don’t think anybody here really took it seriously.”
These people left their homes in the wee hours of the morning, often with only suitcases, as the water crumbled dike after dike and sheriff’s deputies yelled “evacuate” over bullhorns. They fled to shelters, to relatives flung far and wide, to friends’ homes spared by the rising water.
‘When can we go home?’
The Grand Forks Air Force Base is now a refugee camp. One building became a temporary post office, where a snaking line of people waited two hours to pick up mail. A school, a fitness center and an airport hangar converted into shelters, blanketed in olive-green and red cots.
At the height of the evacuation last week, the hangar held 3,500 people. Families and friends built cot neighborhoods and passed the time assembling puzzles and playing games. There was the lull of boredom, of the fifth day of disaster, of more of the same. People were numb. They didn’t remember their last showers. The days were lost - Monday might as well be Thursday.
“I really want a shower, but I don’t have any clean clothes,” said Richard Coney, 18, as he tried to put together a puzzle of pool cues and cars on Wednesday.
One 75-year-old woman cradled local newspapers as she sat in a chair near her new home: a cot with a flowered blanket. Echo Hanson has no voice since throat cancer stole it, and she had eye surgery only a week ago. She lived in her downtown, one-bedroom apartment for 18 years, next door to one of the burned-out shells. She’s been in Grand Forks her entire life, and she was all alone at the base.
Hanson ran her fingers along a newspaper headline asking “So, when can we go home?” and shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t heard a thing.”
Many refugees are itching to get back to their homes. Josh Hodny, 18, sat glumly in his father’s red truck in front of the Air Force Base, wearing no shirt and eating cheese and crackers. On the sides of the truck painted in mud was this message: “We Will Rebuild.”
“We have a rental property two blocks from the river, and we’ve been working on it as a family for nine months now,” Hodny said. “It’s all gone to nothing.”
Some people didn’t leave their homes until forced. Don Mergenthal, 66, has lived in his home since 1971. It sits past the flooded House of Vacuums and the abandoned TanFastic, where the door is open and waves inside knock around plants and chairs. Mergenthal, sporting grizzled gray sideburns and five days of stubble, finally left home Wednesday after he lost his phone service.
He stuck his jeans, a sleeping bag and a Grand Forks telephone book into two plastic bags when the National Guard knocked on his door.
“I haven’t talked to the wife in two days,” muttered Mergenthal, huddled up on the back of a National Guard truck. She left for her aunt’s house in Fargo when the town was evacuated.
Back at the Armory, the Spokane mobile clinic has become a meeting place, where many people talk to each other out front. Tragedy didn’t bring this town together - it was already tight-knit.
Close friends thrown like dice across neighboring states when the flood first hit have returned with tears, seeing each other for the first time since flooding began. They hug. They cry.
Some say they’re planning to leave Grand Forks forever. They doubt the city will ever be the same.
“I ain’t never coming back to this hole,” said Michael Carter, whose basement apartment is now a large fish tank.
“No idea where I’m going. I’m gonna get in my car and drive until I get a job. The reality is, there’s no coming back at all.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 10 Photos (7 color)