The Flood of 1997: A Personal Glimpse

by Ron Burris

At 11 pm on May 9, 1997, my brother and I drove into Grand Forks, North Dakota, the community that shaped us. The city of 50,000 had not a home with a light on. Few vehicles maneuvered the streets. The headlights of our car seemed to be the equivalent of a penlight within a cavernous abyss. Darkness reigned. Being sightless due to the blackness of night and experiencing a vicious attack on my sense of smell, I was impressed with the magnitude of the tragedy. I climbed the stairs to my bedroom of years gone by, feeling my way through the cold, crisp air. The eerie silence heightened my anxiety, and the haunting question: "What would sunlight expose?" saturated my thoughts. Sleep eventually came and I knew one thing with certainty: day would follow night.

Metaphorically, however, there were many more nights to come—daylight could not dispel the darkness. One of the first sights that confronted me was my sister's kitchen. Years of saving, planning, and constructing a family gathering place around a safe table were splintered and drowned minutes after the dike gave way. The white refrigerator, blacked by silt, was raised to the ceiling and came to its final resting place upon two counters. The casket-like image seemed hauntingly symbolic of what had happened.

Water, a building block of life itself, can sustain and destroy. Within the confines of four walls, the force of water flexes its muscles like an all-star wrestler in a rage. The heaviest of items were lifted, tossed, and crushed as if they were furniture from a doll house. While it can be said that these belongings are only material possessions, the hard work of gaining some earthly comforts and, even more importantly, the memories attached to prized possessions make their loss significant. Some "things" are a tangible presence of a larger reality.

It was clear that few items could be saved from either my brother's or my sister's homes. They were so inundated with water, sludge, and bacteria that both structure and contents were a total loss. Wallboard was mush and wood was splintered. Cloth and plastic were contaminated. No time and energy could be profitably spent trying to resuscitate either of these homes. The families directed their attention to finding new dwellings so they could bring their lives as nomads to an end.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed in the 1997 flood. Eighty to ninety percent of all homes in the Greater Grand Forks area suffered damage. People who had water only in their basements considered themselves fortunate — and indeed they were. Yet, both a staggering financial loss and also a labor intensive task lay before "the fortunate ones." This was my parents' situation.

I concentrated my time and energy in my parents' home. The first task was to empty the basement. A small battalion of individuals spent hours upon hours evacuating armfuls, wheelbarrows-full, and dollies-full of debris out of the basement and onto the boulevard. Throughout the city, refuse was piled 6-10 feet high on the boulevards. There were discarded belongings as far as the eye could see. The piles from one home blended into the neighbors' piles creating the effect of a mountain range from one block to the next.

My dad wept. In word and mindset typical of his era, he said: "This is so hard on your mother." Washer, dryer, water heater, furnace, antiques, appliances, clothing, and Christmas ornaments all met the same end. It was particularly difficult to see the belongings of my deceased brother smothered in mud and floating in contaminated water.

By the second day, we had emptied the basement. A new service was installed, and all outlets and older electrical wiring that had been submerged were replaced. It was tremendous to have electricity. My father and I traveled 80 miles to Fargo to order washer, dryer, freezer, and dehumidifier. Because of the great demand for these commodities, it was uncertain when we would be able to get them. It would be weeks before the new furnace would be delivered, and it was only a guess as to when a qualified tradesperson would be available to install it. To make matters worse, the weather was unseasonably cold. On several days, I awakened to snow on the ground and temperatures in the mid 20s. In the cold, we power-washed, disinfected, and painted all areas of the home that had come in contact with the river water. After the hot water was installed, I felt great pleasure in taking a hot shower.

Dollar amounts and material spoilage can be calculated. The emotional toll on the survivors cannot be so easily quantified. Change and loss can be like a death. It was difficult for me to witness the tension between partners forced to make decisions without the luxury of sufficient reflection. They were making valiant efforts to redefine themselves amidst all the work at hand. Many things were out of their control — insurance coverage, buyout amounts, and federal assistance. Basic questions were: Where will we live? How do we support ourselves in the meantime?

As I stood in line for food from the Salvation Army, I read the motto on their shirts: "We Care." My response was a humble and simple, "Thank you." Eyes are the window to the soul, and I could see that these soulful people indeed did care. Though it was dark and much had died, love was shared, and I must correct what I wrote earlier. Darkness did not reign, it only seemed that way in my own grief. The human spirit is amazingly resilient. This truth is being proven again and again in one small community in North Dakota. People — family, friends, and strangers are pulling together to create a genesis. The process of building a new creation is well underway. These signs of hope cast off the darkness and help me to see that "Light" prevails.