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"It was my husband's grandmother's house - it's all gone, every bit of it."

East Grand Forks Underwater
By Dan Gunderson
April 21, 1997

To listen: RealAudio

The Red River will crest today in Grand Forks, North Dakota, at 54 feet - more than double its normal depth. The flood has forced the evacuation of Grand Forks and the city across the river, East Grand Forks, Minnesota. Over the weekend, there was also a big fire in Grand Forks. Fire trucks couldn't get to it, so helicopters dumped buckets of floodwater on the fire.

IT'S A THREE BLOCK WALK through three feet of water to get to the East Grand Forks police headquarters. A wall of sandbags surround the cinderblock building. It's one of the only buildings in town thats not under water.

National Guard troops watch pumps that help keep the command post dry. County attorney Wayne Swanson, and police officers Dustin Wileski and Marty Letexier, are preparing to go on patrol in a boat. The officers say the hardest part is having nothing to do. The city is empty. There are no people to protect, only flooded buildings.

Voice: Hey, you got your fishing pole?

The officers banter as the boat cruises down mainstreet past businesses filled with three or four feet of water. Overhead, a huge helicopter hovers, dipping a bucket into the river and rising to dump water on still-smoldering buildings across the river in Grand Forks. Only blackened skeletons remain of about ten buildings, some eight or ten stories high.

As the boat turns into a residential area and the water gets deeper, the joking stops.

Voice: ...Roofs of houses... Myers' house is gone... Rogers' house is gone...

The boat cruises past block after block of houses, most submerged to the roof. A couple blocks away, smoke billows from a house with only its roof showing above the water.

Voice: ...Watch out for powerlines.

The boat skims under powerlines with inches to spare. Officer Dustin Wileski decides to check out his home just around the corner. Water laps at the second story windows.

Wileski: If we can get there, I'll just step up on the roof... kick in the window and take a few things.... Everything's wet... probably got about a foot of water on the top floor.

After smashing out the window with a shovel, Marty Letexier crawls in. He hands out dripping photo albums. Wileski doesn't want to leave without his wife's wedding dress.

Wileski: She said it was in closet... it's in a big box.

The wedding dress, dripping wet, soon joins the soaked photo albums on the floor of the boat.

The silence is broken only by the quiet sobbing of Dustin Wileski as the boat slowly pulls away from what two days ago was his home. Tears run down the cheeks of all the officers in the boat as we head back to headquarters. At one point, the water is flowing down a street so fast, it spins the boat out of control for a frightening moment.

The last of East Grand Forks residents have now traveled 20 miles to a shelter in Crookston. Peggy Bushee had to leave her hundred year old home. She breaks into tears when told only its chimney protrudes above the water.

Bushee: It was my husband's grandmother's house - it's all gone, every bit of it. Pictures, personal items.... We moved them to the second floor thinking they'd be ok. They weren't. My wedding video.... It's just too much.

Like many of the refugees, Peggy Bushee will find a temporary home with friends or relatives. She will have a lot of time to think about her family's future. It may be a week before the water begins to drop and three weeks before any residents are allowed back in the city.

Return to Flood of 1997