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Grand Forks, N.D., a watery ghost town as Red River surges toward crest

April 21, 1997

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) _ There wasn’t much dry land left in the city today for the few people who were still trying to get out to higher ground as the Red River neared its record flood crest.

``There aren’t any streets that you can get out of town anymore without driving through water,″ Elwood Omdahl said as he left Grand Forks this morning.

Frigid, sewage-fouled water from the bloated river covered 75 percent of the 10 1/2-square-mile city today, and 90 percent of the 50,000 inhabitants had fled, said Fire Department spokesman Jerry Vein.

President Clinton planned to visit the flooded city on Tuesday, the White House said today.

In the middle of the flood, a weekend fire gutted three downtown blocks, leaving the charred skeletons of office and apartment buildings standing amid streets flooded 5 feet deep.

``I’m looking for a new world,″ LeeLynn Nearing sighed as she rode a Coast Guard boat through the streets Sunday to collect belongings from her apartment, a block from the scene of the fire.

The fire started Saturday and raged until it was put out Sunday by helicopters hoisting 2,000-gallon buckets of water and fire trucks that were ferried through the flood atop flatbed trucks.

``There’s not a heck of a lot salvageable,″ Deputy Fire Chief Peter O’Neill said.

The cause of the fire was unknown, but officials said today they had cut off electricity to the downtown and riverside residential areas as a precaution. During the night, firefighters put out three small house fires.

Among the buildings that burned were the 1st National Bank building, an office building, an apartment building and the newsroom and offices of the Grand Forks Herald.

``It makes me feel like I want to cry,″ said Jenelle Stadstad, manager of the newspaper’s library. ``I feel helpless.″ File cabinets that held much of the town’s history in brittle clippings and yellowed photos were lost.

``Our microfilm went back to 1879, our first paper,″ Stadstad said.

The newspaper had special editions printed Sunday and today on the presses of the Saint Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. The paper was being distributed free at evacuation shelters and elsewhere.

While Nearing collected what belongings she could, clothing, financial records and the wedding ring of her late sister among them, authorities braced for more water.

The river, moving slowly across the flat terrain, was expected to crest today at 54 feet, 26 feet above flood stage. By 6 a.m., it had edged up to 53.98 feet, the U.S. Geological Survey said. The National Weather Service was moving its staff out of the city.

The city has no water for taps, toilets or hydrants. Power was cut off to areas within about a half-mile of the river, and there have been problems with gas and telephone service. The University of North Dakota canceled classes for the rest of the semester, along with graduation, and sent 11,000 students home.

Mayor Pat Owens, who ordered a 24-hour curfew in the most seriously flooded areas, said her own house was among the many that were flooded.

``It may not be totaled,″ she said. ``But now I’m in the same bucket with the rest of you. If we come through this and we can say we have lost no citizens, no people, we can say we won the battle.″

The river swept over sandbag and clay dikes on Saturday, advancing street by street, block by block in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn.

In its path, the final 60 patients at the city’s hospital were moved to other facilities and the Emergency Operations Center and police department moved to higher ground Sunday. In its wake, teddy bears floated in the murky water and stores with ``Open″ signs still posted were filled halfway to the ceiling.

The high water has been a nightmare for the Dakotas and Minnesota for weeks. A record amount of snow first melted, then froze and then melted again, swamping dozens of towns and forcing thousands of people to flee.

It could be weeks before residents can return home.

``We’re tough here ... but it became too much,″ said Martin Walker, who abandoned his apartment Sunday afternoon. ``I don’t think anyone was prepared for this.″

The Coast Guard used boats to cruise the silent streets, looking for residents like Alpha Mattson, the 69-year-old next-door neighbor of Nearing who had to be rescued from her third-floor apartment.

``I didn’t think it was going to be like this,″ she said as her dog, Gizzmo, cowered behind her.

On an apartment building fire escape, 77-year-old Clarence Eide held blankets, quilts and pillows in his arms. The retired Army soldier was supposed to have left Friday; he had been eating doughnuts and drinking orange soda for the past two days.

``I didn’t hear nothing about it,″ he said of the evacuation orders. ``I didn’t know we was supposed to have left.″

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