Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Grand Forks flood post

Since I am researching the pork barrel spending Republicans attached to flood relief for North Dakotan's and Minnesotan's, I have come across some pretty amazing stories.

I was just a little kid in my North Dakota days, but witnessed a mighty Goose River flood during my time in North Dakota. My sister has lived through more of these things than I have. Her and her husband gave my girlfriend and I a tour of the area, the dikes and other things that have been done since the 1997 flood.

I am awestruck at the power of Mother Nature. In December, the river looks so peaceful and quiet. By March and April, people begin to really watch the Red River and other tributaries, trying to see what, if anything, will happen again.

Here is an MPR story on the 1997 Grand Forks Flood.

Losing Lincoln Drive

Grand Forks After The Flood
By Laura McCallum
December 30, 1997

RealAudio 2.0 14.4
For more about the experiences of Lincoln Drive residents, including photos, see Remembering and Rebuilding

Seven months ago, civil defense sirens blew in Grand Forks, North Dakota, warning three neighborhoods to flee the rising Red River. Ultimately, an entire community of 50,000 people evacuated as a result of the largest flood in US history.

Among the hardest-hit areas was a close-knit neighborhood of comfortable older homes and middle-class families in east-central Grand Forks. For the residents who lived on or near Lincoln Drive, the flood took more than their homes and belongings - it stole a sense of community that may never be replaced. These are the stories of three families and what has happened since the sirens blew.

ON APRIL 22, 1997, thousands of people chased from their homes by the surging Red River pressed into a hangar at the Grand Forks Air Force base to hear President Clinton offer words of comfort and support.

Clinton: ...We have hardly ever seen such a remarkable demonstration of courage and commitment and cooperation and basic human strength, and we are very impressed and proud to be Americans when we see what you have done in the face of this terrible disaster.

In the audience, three neighbors listened - John Little, Pat Moen, and Susan Cutshall. All lived within a few blocks of one another; all three fled Grand Forks as the Red River spilled over dikes and poured into their homes after rising high above National Weather Service projections to crest at 54 feet - 26 feet above flood stage. The Moens and Cutshalls lived on Lincoln Drive, their backyards bordering the river; John Little's house stood a couple of blocks away on Chestnut.

There was a sense of comfort - even relief - in the air-base hangar, a huge change from the confusion and terror described in the pages of Susan Cutshall's diary in the days leading up to the president's visit.

Cutshall: April 17, 97. It happened in the afternoon. The dike had four cracks at the end of Lincoln Drive. The siren blew. Police came. Guards, fire trucks, helicopters, and I broke down.
We packed clothes and cleared out the refrigerator. Move over to 207 Chestnut where we thought we would be safe.

1:15 Friday, we heard on the radio that the Lincoln gave in, it's filling up - Lincoln lagoon, they call it. We walked all the way home. Not knowing what to expect - two houses from us, you can see the water coming up. Tears (chokes up)- fell down my cheeks - and the guards stopped us and I said, "No, that's our house!"

I got up at 4:30 Friday. The sirens are going off, the phones are ringing. The woman I was staying with, Mary Ann Allen, woke me up and says, "that was a call for prayer." We did. And all I could do is imagine everybody praying to God to stop these waters. Cause we CAN'T. We TRIED.

We went through town very, very slow - creeping. We were still scared because if that engine stalled, we were right in the middle of it. We thought we were going to the air base; instead we went to Faith Community Church on the other side and we thought we were safe ... We got up at 7 am to find out the water's getting closer and closer. So here we are, doing it again. And we went for shelter at the air base. And I told my husband if it comes out this far, I'm leaving the whole state. I've had enough - I can't run away any more.

By the time President Clinton toured Grand Forks, the Cutshalls and their neighbor, John Little, had been staying on canvas cots at the base for three days. Little, a wiry man with a shock of curly hair, moved to Grand Forks in 1969, but you'd never know it to hear his southern accent. The University of North Dakota English professor fully expected to be at the base another week or two.

Little: I don't think the river's gonna be going down much in a week! ... And I do enjoy - visiting. And I'm enjoying watching the people. But it would be nice to take a shower. Little had heard the gurgle of his basement filling the night before he evacuated, and, like many at the base, he wasn't sure what condition his home would be in when he returned. But Pat Moen already knew floodwaters reached the rooftop of her two-story home - her husband, a Grand Forks police officer, patrolled the area. Moen knew they would not return to 501 Lincoln Drive.

Moen: It's hard. And Lincoln Drive area - that whole neighborhood is a real close neighborhood, so - it's hard.

Three weeks later, mid-May, Moen's neighborhood is deserted, the only sound a wind chime still hanging in her backyard. Some nearby homes were forced off their foundations by the force of the floodwater; Moen's blue 75-year-old home is marked off by yellow police tape. Inside, floors have buckled, half-dried mud is peeling off the kitchen counters, and her refrigerator is toppled over. Moen can't spend any time there - the home's musty flood smell brings on her asthma.
At a restaurant on the other side of town, Moen says her neighborhood is destroyed.

Moen: And I look at my neighbor's houses and I cry - it's hard. It's quiet in Grand Forks, now that the Red River is back within its banks. As residents returned to their homes in the days following the flood, many directed their anger at the National Weather Service for its inaccurate prediction of the river's crest. An army of volunteers is still helping with disaster relief in Grand Forks, but the satellite farms of the TV crews have withered away almost to nothing, and the visits by national politicians have stopped.

Pat Moen and her husband Jim are staying with her mother in a two-bedroom trailer. They've decided to move to North Carolina, where their daughter lives, when Jim retires from the police department in January.

The Cutshalls, who lived a few blocks away on higher ground, are renting a rundown trailer in nearby Emerado, not sure whether to clean up their house, which got about a foot of water on the main floor, or wait for a possible buyout. Both the Moens and Cutshalls' homes are on what's called the "wet," or wrong side of a proposed new dike city officials are considering to protect Grand Forks from future floods, although it isn't likely to be built for several years. Only John Little is living in his home again.

When Little's small, dark basement flooded, a brick wall caved in, but the water didn't reach his main floor. Little knows he was fortunate, but he did spend a miserable five days pumping out his basement, without the benefit of heat, running water or electricity.

Little: That might have been one of the worst weeks of my life. Working in that dungeon, with that muck. And there's no easy way - NO way to glamorize what it was like in that basement. You know, I had a Coleman lantern, and a flashlight, and a squeegee board and a push broom and a 5-gallon bucket so that you were just hauling that muck out of there. Little is glad to be back in his two-story home, which he's been restoring for more than a decade. One of his teenage twin sons lives here, too. The 58-year-old English professor has long planned to stay until he retires to his home state of Mississippi in a few years. He admits he's second-guessed himself a few times, not because of the flood, but because he didn't apply soon enough to get any of the so-called "angel" money. An anonymous donor pledged $15 million to Grand Forks flood victims, to be distributed in no-strings-attached $2,000 grants. Little says he put off applying because he hates filling out forms and standing in line, and now the money's gone.

Little: Everything that the city said - and that I heard through the grapevine - led me to believe that you didn't have to rush to get the money. I thought it was kind of guaranteed. So I felt like they had misled me, and it made me bitter enough - I'm ashamed to say - that I thought, I don't want to be here any more. But I've since backed off of that, now that you have time to think about it. Little is also working on a novel about, ironically, North Dakotans who lost their homes to a reservoir.

It's early July, nearly three months after the flood. Lincoln Drive is still devastated - little has changed here, except now a few barren lots are evidence Grand Forks has begun tearing down houses. The city council has approved the first phase of a plan to buy out flood-damaged homes. Officials delayed a decision until Congress approved a disaster relief bill allocating more than $1 billion to Minnesota and the Dakotas. The latest damage estimate for Grand Forks alone is more than $500 million.

The Cutshalls have decided to buy a new house seventeen miles away in Emerado, far from the flood-prone river. Sitting in front of 7 Lincoln Drive, Dennis Cutshall is resigned to leaving the place they called home for almost a decade and a half.

Cutshall: That's what kept us here was the neighborhood, and I guess that's finally what's making us decide to leave, because the neighborhood's gonna be gone. Even if our house stayed, the neighborhood's gone. It's an old-fashioned type of neighborhood where you could sit out and wave at people, and kids would play in their bikes and everything, so that's - gonna be tough to leave that. Cutshall, a soft-spoken computer specialist at the University of North Dakota, says he wasn't prepared for how painful it is to see the gaps left by demolished houses nearby.

Cutshall: Tears you up when you see it, you know. I can still walk down on Lincoln and see the houses, and I can still get tears in my eyes from it. The Cutshalls considered leaving Grand Forks and going back to Rochester, Minnesota, where both Susan and Dennis grew up, but their daughter Angie won't graduate from high school for another four years. They also have a grown son and daughter who live in Grand Forks. Like many Lincoln Drive families, the Cutshalls and the Moens are connected through their children - the Cutshalls' older daughter, Patty, is friends with the Moen's daughter, Dawn, who lives in North Carolina.

The Moens still plan to move to a new home near Dawn, but now they've decided Pat will leave in a few weeks, and Jim will join her in January. Pat Moen, like the Cutshalls, keeps thinking back as she looks to a future far from Lincoln Drive.

Moen: The old neighborhood where everybody - they were off Saturday, we got together and threw things on the grill, and everybody brought a little bit of something, and we all had fun. That won't be there. The only thing that'll be there is my daughter and my granddaughter and my grandson. Like many flood victims, the Moens have had their share of recovery headaches - they didn't get the full amount of flood insurance on their home, because the water didn't quite reach the two bedrooms upstairs. But as Pat angrily points out, they can't use the top floor if the house is totaled. Then the city told them the home they paid $38,000 for 18 years ago is only worth $49,000 if it buys them out. The building has also been vandalized. Moen says it's hard to believe it's been almost three months since the flood, yet the lives of flood victims are still so unsettled.

Moen: I mean, a lot of people think everything is hunky-dory up here now - it's NOT. It's far from it. They're still messing around with this buyout ... we're all still soaking wet, and to look at it, it's gonna be awhile before anybody's dry. Even John Little, enjoying a breakfast of bacon and grits in his home, says his future looks more uncertain now. He's been told he needs a new foundation, yet the city won't give him a building permit because he's in the 100-year flood plain. So he may end up being bought out after all. Little says he'd like to settle the matter - but he admits, he can't really feel sorry for himself.

Little: I DO have it easy - I'm in my house, if you took the uncertainty away about what is gonna happen to me, I would be OVER the flood. I didn't lose anything that I cried about.

It's now mid-September, fall semester has begun, and John Little's creative writing class is discussing Flannery O'Connor's "The River." The discussion soon turns closer to home.

Little: Is anybody writing about the flood? Anybody going to?

Student: I think it's still too soon. You know, cause I've thought about writing something about it. But I wouldn't really care... to go through it again or write about it. I'd rather wait a year or two, five, who knows. Another student says she's tired of hearing about the flood, and Little responds it will take years before people affected by the flood quit talking about it - too much remains unsettled.

In Little's case, he still doesn't know if the city will buy out his house, so he'll replace his furnace to get through the winter. Little doesn't want to leave - he says he'll never be able to buy another home with hardwood floors, a fireplace, a bay window, and a front porch for what the city will give him.

A couple of blocks away from Little's house, Grand Forks police sergeant Jim Moen patrols his former neighborhood. Butch, as his friends call him, has been living with his brother since his wife moved to North Carolina at the end of July. He says he often drives around town, trying to find former neighbors. The Moens' house looks the same, except the yard is lush with grass about a foot high. Inside, the walls are covered with different colored molds. As often as he's stopped by to check on the house, Moen says it's still upsetting to see it like this.

Moen: We were going to move anyhow, but it was a good sturdy house, and you know, it would have been good for somebody! The Moens hired an appraiser to try to get a better buyout offer from the city, and the city agreed to the appraisal of $66,000, but the Moens haven't signed a bill of sale yet. Jim Moen has decided to head to North Carolina a month earlier, and retire on his 55th birthday in December. He says it's a bittersweet feeling to leave the area where he's spent most of his life, but he doubts he'll return very often.

Moen: Like I tell some people, I'll be back in the spring of '98 for the flood, as a volunteer! They don't like to hear that (chuckles). Moen says he's heard talk that this winter could be even worse than the last. Meantime, the Cutshalls are getting settled in their new house in Emerado, a small town right next to the air base that sheltered them and other flood evacuees five months ago.

It's a far cry from Lincoln Drive - the Cutshall's gray, ranch-style home sits next to just two other houses on the edge of Emerado. Their backyard borders a field.

Relaxing outside after dinner, Susan Cutshall says it's wonderful to be in a house again.

Cutshall: I like it out here - it's peaceful, it's less hectic, and - I couldn't stand living in Grand Forks because - I don't think it's changed that much since the flood. People are still up in the air as far as what's going on for next year's flood. If it does flood next year, the Cutshalls feel safe, knowing they're seventeen miles from the river. But they miss their neighbors, and Dennis misses the old house.

Cutshall: It doesn't feel like home yet ... I miss the porch - I used to sit out on the porch and watch the storms. I can't sit out on the patio and watch the storms here! The city has offered the Cutshalls $59,000 for their Lincoln Drive home, which they think is a little low. Even if they accept it, they don't expect to get a buyout check until next year. Their flood insurance went to pay off the old mortgage and put a down payment on this house, so now, in their 40s, Susan and Dennis are starting payments on a new, bigger mortgage.

Thousands of miles away, Pat Moen is adapting to Kannapolis, North Carolina, on the outskirts of Charlotte. A new wind chime hangs in the backyard of the Moen's new home, a double-wide trailer on an acre-and-a-half of mostly wooded land. It's mid-October, and although she's been apart from her husband for nearly three months, Moen has the joy of seeing her grandchildren - 3-year-old Tayler and 1-year-old Dakota - nearly every day.

Moen has started a new job at the Walmart here, transferring from the Grand Forks store, and says her co-workers have made her feel at home. Her two pug dogs keep her company, and Moen is also getting to know her new neighbors, talking to them over the back fence.

Moen says she thinks she and her husband made the right decision to leave Grand Forks, especially now their former neighbors are scattered all over town, and the buyout is dragging on.

Some residents who think buyout offers are too low have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, claiming the city's program doesn't properly compensate homeowners. Moen isn't part of the lawsuit, but says she doesn't blame residents for suing. She says she doesn't miss Grand Forks, just her neighbors of 18 years.

Moen: There are people there that I care very deeply for, and THAT'S what hurts. The town itself, I don't miss. No. Not from what I see what's going on. That isn't the Grand Forks that I moved there 20 years ago to see. Moen carries a lot of bitterness toward the city of Grand Forks - she's convinced city officials had some warning the river was going to get as high as it did, and could've given residents time to get their belongings out. She thinks the city should be doing more to help elderly residents who lost their homes and can't afford a new mortgage. And Moen says it makes her sick to think their home hasn't been demolished yet - she considers it a health hazard.

It's late November back in Grand Forks. A layer of snow covers Lincoln Drive; the only sound, the crackle of leaves blowing across the snow.

The Moen's home is still there, still guarded by yellow police tape. A few blocks away, the Cutshalls home hasn't been demolished, either. Dennis Cutshall stops by every day at noon to check on the house because, he says, they're still liable until the city buys it. But he says he doesn't like the neighborhood's emptiness.

Cutshall: The other day when we went to the house to pick up a few last things, we pulled into the driveway and all there was down there was a set of rabbit tracks. Just kinda (laughs) struck me, that's who's living down there now! In the Cutshalls' new house in Emerado, 14-year-old Angie goes online to talk to friends. She says she doesn't get to see them as much now that they've moved from Grand Forks. She says she doesn't really miss the house she grew up in, yet she doesn't like thinking about their old neighborhood.

Cutshall: I don't go back at all. I don't like to ... 'cause I stay bummed out for a long time. Dennis Cutshall still has trouble sleeping, and says he occasionally has nightmares about fighting the flood, nearly seven months after it occurred. He says he doesn't think there will ever come a time when he and Susan feel like they're "over" the flood.

Cutshall: I think it's too traumatic to ever GET OVER completely. I think we'll recover emotionally and financially and everything. But I think - it's always gonna be there. For John Little, a sense of closure will come when he's settled in a new house. The city has offered him about $52,000 for his home on Chestnut Street, not enough to buy a comparable house in Grand Forks, so Little says he'll likely have to rent for a few years until he retires in Mississippi. He's less anxious than some to see the buyout program move more quickly.

Little: You know, I don't have anything to look forward to that makes me want to rush! I wanna stay here as long as I can. In the end, Little actually got $2,000 from the angel fund, that pool of money he'd thought he missed out on. The city sent him a letter, saying its records showed Little had substantial damage, yet hadn't received any money from the fund. Little says he was happy to even receive the letter, and "delighted" to get the full $2,000 grant.

Although Little's street hasn't changed as dramatically as Lincoln Drive, he is losing his next-door neighbors, whose basement was a popular hangout - so much so it had a name - "The Ledge."

Little: I can FIND other community. It won't be the same - I can't replace Billy and Sharon! You know, there are no other Billies and Sharons in the world! But I can find another community.

And ultimately, so will the Moens and the Cutshalls and the other residents forced to relocate. The city will eventually destroy hundreds of homes as part of its flood mitigation plan. The flood of 97 chased 50,000 people from Grand Forks - many of whom lost their homes and neighborhoods - and far more who lost their possessions. At the time a lot was made of the fact that no one was killed in the disaster. But the story of the Red River Valley flood is a tapestry of individual tragedies, something Pat Moen says, unless you experienced it, you'll never truly understand.

Moen: And everybody says, well, be grateful you didn't lose a life. But you did - we lost life in Lincoln Drive ... We lost a neighborhood, and a close neighborhood. One Moen says can never be recaptured.

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