When the waters of the Red began encroaching on Grand Forks, a citywide evacuation was ordered, one of the largest peacetime evacuations in U.S. history.
Grand Forks Air Force Base
Well before the flood began its relentless takeover of Grand Forks, the Grand Forks Air Force Base, located 15 miles west of the city, threw its flight caps into the ring.
The Base was ordered to minimal manning and then sent busloads of off-duty personnel to help fill sandbags, shore up dikes and eventually help rescue people stranded by floodwaters. Of the estimated 3.5 million sandbags that were used in the flood fight, it’s estimated the base was responsible for filling approximately 800,000 bags.
When a mandatory evacuation was ordered for Grand Forks, six shelters were set up on base for evacuees. At its peak, the base housed approximately 3,500 people - mainly civilians. Most stayed in three aircraft hangar bays.
President Bill Clinton visited the base shelters on April 22, and after seeing the plight of the people, he upped federal assistance from $200 million to $488 million.
As if the community didn't have enough to worry about, fire broke out in downtown Grand Forks at the height of the flood. Eleven buildings were destroyed, and it could have been worse if not for the response of base firefighters and their 63-ton P-15 crash vehicle – the largest fire truck in the Air Force inventory. Base firefighters poured nearly 100,000 gallons of water on the fire from midnight to 9 a.m.
Members of the 79th Rescue Flight, flying HH-1H Iroquois helicopters, provided helicopter support to local emergency operations center officials by flying emergency evacuation missions and medical evacuation flights. In one weekend alone, the 79th, part of the 321st Missile Group, transported 45 patients being evacuated.
When United Hospital in Grand Forks took on water, many of the patients the rescue flight transported were taken directly to the base hospital. Before it was all over, the 319th Medical Group had 457 new patients and had to use the base elementary school to shelter and take care of them.
On April 18, 1997, the unthinkable happened. Dikes were breached, the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks covered with water. Residents of both communities evacuated their homes and businesses. From that Friday through the afternoon of Sunday, April 20, 368 patients were successfully evacuated from Medical Park. With the help of the National Guard and the Air Force, patients were flown to facilities all over our region; there was no loss of life or injury to any patient during evacuation. Over 440 outpatients were transferred to other services. These outpatients included people on dialysis, home infusion therapy, chemotherapy, respiratory therapy, and home care. Their care had to be continued and we saw to it that it did continue.
With the population of Greater Grand Forks scattered, physicians, professional staff, and support staff volunteered their services wherever they were needed. Two operating rooms were set up at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, including an open heart room.
The hospital and clinic supplied personal care items to thousands of people in shelters. Healthcare did not disappear in the valley, it relocated. Grand Forks physicians and nurses provided care for patients in branch clinics throughout the region. From April 18 until the hospital opened on May 8 and the clinic opened May 12, clinic and hospital employees worked together as if formal integration had already taken place.