In Touch with Prairie Living
By Michael M. Miller & Ron Vossler
In this month's column, guest writer Ron Vossler relates his experiences
in the great flood disaster which struck the communities of Grand
Forks and East Grand Forks. A native of Wishek, N.D., Ron teaches
writing at the University of North Dakota. During May, he joined
the NDSU Libraries-sponsored Journey to the Homeland Tour to Russia,
Ukraine and Germany as a writer and interviewer.
Flood: Near the Point in East Grand Forks, April 18-19, 1997
That Friday afternoon--from atop a makeshift bank of moist clay--I
watched part of a dike collapse. This was the prelude to a disaster.
Maybe a city block away, the swollen Red Lake River swept away some
sandbags, spilling yard-deep water into backyards and alleyways.
Quickly, at the base of the dike where I stood, near a low spot
by the Point Video Store, the water swirled around the legs, then
rose to chest level, of a stocky workman in orange hipwaders disconnecting
some hoses from a pump he'd been operating.
The workman remained calm, his face focused and intent--one of
the many same faces which I would see during these past days on
sandbaggers and police officers and National Guardspeople no matter
the danger. Next to me on the dike, two police officers hustled
back towards Louie Murray Bridge, groping for walkie talkies hooked
to their belts, to report the new collapse alert.
Stiff from days of sandbagging, I stumbled after them. I kept
to the highest rim of the dike, crossing what had once been front
yards of houses, which had been lost earlier to flood water. Like
sacrifices to the rising river, gabled roofs poked above the water
line; picture windows opened into inundated living rooms. In the
entryway of one house, brown sofa cushions bumped against the windows
like bloated dolphins. Sagging into the water from the eaves of
another house a sign declared: "God Bless All You Sandbaggers
Who Tried To Save Our Home."
Meanwhile, on the Louie Murray Bridge, spanning the Red Lake River,
there was chaos. Civilians were cleared out, with only police, guardsmen
and essential flood personnel remaining. "If that dike gives
way," someone warned, not even finishing the sentence. The
air was tense! Buses full of tired sandbaggers, bumper to bumper,
plowed through the gathering water, their hot manifolds steaming,
headed for higher ground.
Three blocks away, from the front steps of my home, I watched
determined effort to plug the gushing gap in the sandbag dike which
protected my area of East Grand Forks. This was no easy task! Earlier,
from the height of one dike, I viewed the sheen of a swollen Red
Lake River, stretching into the far distance. All that water pressing
against our dikes made me feel hopeless then, even before the break.
National Guard troops in mottled green uniforms leaped from their
truck tailgates at the river bridge entrance. Their officers shouted
orders. Flatbed trucks, loaded with pallets of sandbags from "Sandbag
Central," wheeled around the corner, then sped over the bridge.
They were followed by frontloaders with mud-caked wheels, followed
by top-heavy, medieval looking backhoes, appearing like disjointed
judgment out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting. That repetition went
on, relentlessly, until evening.
Again, from my own front steps--until people on the river bridge
became spectral shapes flitting back and forth through the headlight
beams of police cars and National Guard trucks--attempted to see
what was happening. But, this night action was too far distant.
One result was clear, however: those flood personnel bought time
for the rest of us, by wedging or jamming sandbags into that torn
gap, by shoring up that soggy dike.
Around ten p.m., I spoke with my neighbor, a navy veteran with
a penchant for reading history, who said, "I've seen what water
can do. I've seen monsoons." We decided when we would abandon,
not if, as discussed on the previous days. From constant stress
of our past week, he mentioned developing a nervous twitch in his
eye. "Just like General Paulus at Stalingrad, before he surrendered,"
he said with a forced laugh, while nodding in the direction of the
swollen river, no longer passively benign, often neglected water
which flowed past our town, but now the enemy.
This was a long night, of sirens, with heavy equipment trundling
past my house. There were radio reports offering comfort that makeshift,
secondary dikes would be erected on sidestreets. Once jolted awake
by a siren, I peered sleepily, hopefully out my front window. There,
to my famished relief, I saw, or thought I saw, the long ragged
mound of an earthen dike, hastily constructed along the highway
between my house and the river. This vision seemed real enough--what
I wanted to see--so with a sigh of relief, I fell back into a restless
Early next morning, Saturday, grasping in disbelief, radio reports
were a mixture of panic and resignation. No one wanted to recognize,
nor could fathom what impact comes when the dikes collapse. One
spokesperson described of a wall of water--"the likes of which
had never been seen"--which, when the dike near Kennedy Bridge
gave way, would swamp much of East Grand Forks.
From my front steps I reassessed the scene. It was a shock not
to visually embrace along the highway that imaginary dike which
I'd constructed out of my own grogginess and need for security.
Instead, stationed on the entrance to the river bridge, there were
only National Guard jeeps, some haphazard mounds of soil, and a
few grim-looking police officers peering apprehensively across the
The dilemma was starting to focus that I must leave my home, soon!
On my second floor landing, I put out extra food and water for my
cats, enough for a week, hoping they'd seek higher ground when the
water hit. Listlessly--numb with shock--I carried a few armloads
of books upstairs as parting ritual. Next, I drove from my not-so-familiar
town just as the final evacuation orders came, not knowing (thankfully)
the full extent of what had happened--until anxiety became a flood
of its own later: recognizing that life, we know as familiar, had
changed so quickly.
Share Your Memories
Readers are invited to share their survival stories during the
difficult days of April, 1997. Some of these accounts and a chronology
of events appear at my personal home page at http://library.ndsu.edu/grhc/biography.html.
The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection website is http://library.ndsu.edu/grhc.
For further information and other comments, contact Michael M. Miller,
NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599. Tel: 701-231-8416;