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The cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, at least as the locals knew them, disappeared April 19, 1997, when the Red River burst through its dikes and washed through the streets destroying houses and businesses. In the days following the flood, local officials worried about a mass exodus from the area. Some people predicted as many as 20 percent of the people would leave forever.
That didn't happen. In the end, only three percent moved elsewhere. But rebuilding has been a long and frustrating process that is still far from over.
TWO NEIGHBORS are helping Grand Forks homeowner Kevin Dean repair his basement. It filled with six feet of water last spring during the flood causing about $30,000 worth of damage. A family room, a storage area, and a bathroom containing the home's only shower were destroyed.
The family room, now coated with dust, is stripped to the studs. Boxes are stacked all around. In the bathroom the walls are painted white, but there's no floor covering, and a new shower awaits installation.
A contractor stops by to see if he can help fix a bumpy cement floor.
Kevin: Is it something that would be extensive? Would it be tough to do?Dean and his wife decided to wait until late December to begin rebuilding. They thought they'd avoid the rush for contractors right after the flood. They also kept telling themselves "Other people had it worse" so they could wait.
Contractor: I would say 120 bucks.
Kevin: I think you've got a deal. That's materials? You've got everything.
But now they have found they were wrong on both counts. Even now contractors are still in huge demand And then, in early January, Dean says, the full impact of their loss hit home.
Kevin: I consider myself a pretty strong person and I just looked around at the mess that was here and the work that had just barely started, and I just started to cry. I just sat down on the steps and I just got to thinking about the time, and money, and the effort, and, you know, where I could ask people to help me or couldn't. I got to feeling guilty about that and I just.... I thought I had gotten by all of that, and then it just hit me like a truck.Dean received some financial help from FEMA and his flood insurance policy, but not enough to pay for all the repairs. He can't afford to take out a loan, so repairs will be done on an as-needed basis.
Officials estimate there are more than 900 homeowners in greater Grand Forks that are in the same situation as Kevin Dean. Grand Forks has built 200 homes in the last year, and will have to continue that pace for the next few years. In East Grand Forks officials say 750 new homes will have to be built in the next three years to meet housing demands.
Many small business owners are also struggling to recover.
Gary Emerson's music store is one of 11 businesses in the Holiday Mall in East Grand Forks. The city bought and remodeled the mall to help local businesses get back on their feet.
Emerson says its been a struggle to come back. His business suffered more than $175,000 worth of damage to equipment and his building. He had no flood insurance.
Emerson: It hurts but after awhile it's just a figure on a piece of paper; you pick up the pieces and go on. No use getting down in the doldrums about it; getting sick over it. It's just a figure on the paper and you work with what you have and make the best of it.You hear a lot of that sentiment around the Grand Forks area. But there are still a lot of hard realities to be faced.
In downtown Grand Forks, construction crews are busy hammering, sawing, and nailing to replace the 11 buildings destroyed in the inferno immediately after the flood and repair the water damage to the others.
The Grand Forks Herald building was gutted by the fire. A new art deco-style building should be finished by early summer. Its front entrance will indicate the high water mark of the flood of '97.
Publisher Mike Maidenburg sits on the "ReImagining Downtown" committee which has been creating plans for the new downtown Grand Forks. He says the downtown will never be the same as it was before, but this year's rebuilding is restoring the community's heartbeat.
Maidenburg: After that, then, the natural growth starts to take place on its own. That's what really will make most of the improvements, it's not really, it's not going to be rebuilt by government, because there's just no way to do that. It's got be the private sector.An example of a public-private partnership is a $15 million office building and parking ramp planned by the city of Grand Forks. Already most of that office space is rented. The three main tenants will be a bank, an accountant, and a law firm.
This and other downtown plans are not without controversy.
Some residents are voicing concerns that some of the $171 million of federal rebuilding aid are being spent on a downtown that could be flooded again. They say the money would be better spent on other projects in the city.
Grand Forks city council member Elliot Glassheim disagrees. He says the downtown offers a place for specialty shops like his bookstore, Dr. Elliot's Twice Used Books. However, Glassheim says, the city's downtown redevelopment plan is raising rents.
Glassheim: The rents are going up downtown, what used to be, you know, depressed rents and not a retail center and not a huge amount of traffic, now has become in demand, partly because about one-third of the buildings downtown have been destroyed.The lack of rental property is forcing some downtown Grand Forks businesses to relocate to other parts of the city and across the river to East Grand Forks. But there are money problems there, too.
East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss says the Holiday Mall is part of phase one of a $50 million downtown redevelopment plan. Future plans include an enclosed mall with specialty shops, a new city library, and a community center.
But Stauss is concerned where the money will come from. He says his city received more damage per person than Grand Forks, but Grand Forks has received more media attention and thus more help.
Stauss: We're happy for Grand Forks - that they are getting the help they wanted and needed. And I can't say the state hasn't been good to us, but they have been. But I just know that we're going to need federal and state help for the long term, not the short term.Stauss says it will take millions to rebuild the downtown area, and East Grand Forks is going to need a great deal of help from the state of Minnesota for the next several years.
Four new schools are being built in East Grand Forks, while 15 buildings are being replaced in Grand Forks. Officials say the new schools will be equipped with state-of-the-art technology.
Through all the struggles there seems to be a community-wide hope for the future.
As Kevin Dean stands in his flood-damaged basement, he says his family talked about leaving, but knew they had to stay.
Dean: We're fighters, and we didn't want to give up. I've heard an awful lot of people say, and I've probably muttered it myself: if this ever happened again, I don't know if I could come back and do this all over again. That would be really, really hard. but this time we're going to fight, and we're going to stay.