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Bathing not a top priority as Red River chases residents from homes

April 22, 1997

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) _ Tired of sandbagging, John Neppel and his family gave up, fired up the outdoor grill and watched the Red River creep toward their home.

``We knew we were losing it all, so we pulled all the steaks out of the freezer and had one last good supper,″ Neppel said Monday from Bemidji, Minn., where the family took refuge.

Moving slowly north across the flat plains of eastern North Dakota, the renegade river chased out nearly all 50,000 city residents.

Those who stayed behind have had to cope with filthy, icy floodwaters that cut off running water and blocked firefighters from getting to a blaze that ravaged three downtown business blocks.

``Bathing?″ Alex Ramirez said. ``That’s not really the number one priority right now.″

The flood resulted in the shutdown of the city’s water treatment plant, leaving no running water for the roughly 2,500 to 5,000 people still in Grand Forks. The city hopes to tap into a rural water system, but until then there was a premium on bottled water.

The National Weather Service said the river appeared to be cresting today at 54 feet, more than twice the flood stage, and was expected to stay at that level for several days.

Cleanup could cost in the tens of millions, and damage could top $1 billion, local officials said.

Gov. Ed Schafer said detailed aerial photos and video would be taken of the city starting today, ``so people can start to see what damage they may or may not have.″

`We have to figure out a way to get people back into this community. It’s going to be a long-term recovery,″ he said on NBC’s ``Today″ show this morning.

``We will rebuild Grand Forks, North Dakota, to better than it was before.″

President Clinton planned to fly over the area today and visit the Grand Forks Air Force base, which has become a shelter for about 2,000 people.

The Red has been pushing its way north for days. The cities of Fargo and Wahpeton were in the greatest danger last week; for the most part, the dikes there held. Now the Red is threatening smaller towns near the Canadian border and the Canadian province of Manitoba.

Residents of Drayton and Pembina, towns in northern North Dakota, and Emerson and Dominion City, in southern Manitoba, Canada, were asked to leave their homes. A crack formed in a dike protecting Drayton early this morning, prompting more people to evacuate, but the town was not flooded yet, said Corene Vaughn, a Pembina County commissioner.

A fertilizer plant in Drayton put out a call for help to move some 3,800 tons of dry fertilizer it feared would ruin the local water supply if it got into the flooded ground. Trucks were hauling the fertilizer from the Cenex plant this morning, Ms. Vaughn said.

``They’re working feverishly at it, and it should be complete shortly,″ she said.

In Grand Forks, portable bathrooms and water tanks were set up in the city’s unsubmerged west end. Residents were limited to one 1-gallon jug of water a day. The sale of alcohol was banned; barrooms and liquor stores were ordered shut by Mayor Pat Owens, who was worried about her residents’ exhausted state of body and mind.

``The sanitary conditions are primitive at best,″ National Guard Capt. Greg Bowen said. ``What people take for granted day to day, like taking a shower and washing clothes, isn’t going to happen for quite a while.″

National Guard soldiers in airboats, rafts and personal watercraft zoomed past submerged cars on their way to rescuing those trapped in their homes. Some homes floated off foundations.

``I want to go back to something, at least the frame of the house,″ said Jennifer Butler, who left her downtown apartment and was staying with her parents in the west end.

The National Guard Armory has become a supplier of everything from pet information to tetanus shots, cots and quick meals. Guardsmen on break played cards.

Volunteers dished up beef stew, salad, bratwurst and milk. Out front, people came in to leave their names on legal pads so friends and relatives could find them.

Neppel spent the day on the phone, trying to locate his 18-year-old son, Chad. They became separated when the family hurriedly split up during the evacuation Friday night.

Neppel even asked friends to search the Internet for clues.

``I think he’s OK, but I don’t know,″ Neppel said, his voice breaking.

``I just want to know that he’s safe,″ he said. ``I want to give him some reassurance that we’ll get together soon.″

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