In April 1997, the world watched as the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota, became a natural disaster war zone.
Extensive efforts to keep the raging Red River of the North at bay had failed. The city's 50,000 residents were awakened in the middle of the night and told to leave. Water was rushing from one neighborhood to another. In the midst of it all, a fire broke out in the downtown business district, hopping from building to building while firefighters braved rising water trying to get the flames under control.
When the fury ended, 11 buildings downtown had burned and about 90 percent of the city had seriously flooded. Stunned residents returned to the daunting task of rebuilding their lives. Some thought it was hopeless and moved away, leaving their wrecked houses behind.
But it was not hopeless. Now, three years later, a new Grand Forks is emerging. Faith, hard work and vision have prevailed. Lessons have been learned. And the city, once termed an "island in a prairie sea,'' is poised to show the world that it is back better than ever.
"We've come a long way in our recovery," said Mayor Pat Owens. "A key factor was that we formed partnerships among our citizens, community leaders, businesses and city, state and federal staff," Owens added. "It was not only important to rebuild our city, but it was important to do it in such a way that we wouldn't be so devastated from another disaster. When your city is on a river, the risk is always there."
City leaders set the tone for rebuilding almost immediately after the water receded. Under enormous pressure to make exceptions to local floodplain ordinances, city officials instead held firm and enforced local regulations that required building back with special measures to reduce future losses.
"We have a federal government in place," said Owens, "but they cannot come to our aid again and again and again if we do not take care of ourselves. We need to take control of and manage our own lives."
FEMA Regional Director Rick Weiland said, "I applaud Grand Forks for embracing the opportunity to build back better, to create a truly disaster-resistant community. Rebuilding better is about saving lives, protecting property, protecting the economic and social fabric of Grand Forks, and saving people from the heartache of disaster."
As recovery has progressed, the new philosophy has taken hold.
Most significantly, 635 properties in the floodplain - nearly 300 of them adjacent to a dike that lines the river - were voluntarily sold to the city, enabling those homeowners to move out of harm's way. The flood-ravaged houses were demolished and the resulting green space will remain open and undeveloped forever.
In addition, an existing dike has been repaired, an interim secondary dike has been built to the level of the 1997 flood and a larger, permanent dike will be completed by the year 2006.
Amid the charred ruins of the downtown business district, a new corporate center has been built as a commercial anchor, replacing most of the burned office space in downtown. The center, comprised of two multi-story buildings, has been flood-proofed and utilities have been located both on upper floors and the roof. There is no basement.
The city's water treatment plant has been rebuilt with a number of special features designed to keep it operational not only through floods, but blizzards and severe storms as well. During and after the 1997 flood, the city was without drinkable water for 23 days after the plant's critical electrical and mechanical systems were inundated. Now, the plant's electrical transformers and panels have been elevated above the 1997 record-flood level. Crucial air compressors and storage of important records have been relocated to upper floors. Hollow-core metal shields have been custom built to fit over the outside of main doors and windows to keep out wate...