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Red River flood crest passes into Canada; Americans bid good riddance

April 29, 1997

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) _ The Red River has finished its main flood course in the United States, leaving 250 miles of grimy mess in its wake.

Like an unwanted visitor who just won’t leave, the Red took more than three weeks before its huge crest crossed into Canada, where today it broke a dike and submerged one small town. It will take a lot longer than that to clean up.

In the full week and a half since it forced the evacuations of almost all residents of this city of 50,000, the community is ever so slowly drying out.

By early today, the river was down to 45.6 feet at Grand Forks, almost 9 feet below last week’s record crest.

Only about 5 percent of the homes have tap water, but it is not yet fit for drinking. Fewer than 10,000 have electricity. There is no adequate protection against fire, which destroyed a downtown block during the height of the flooding.

And for the 90 percent of residents allowed to return home for cleanup, just getting there can be a daunting task.

Peter and Wanda Behling found their home in East Grand Forks, Minn., blocked by a 100-yard moat of waist-deep water.

Behling donned chest waders and went inside to find a house thrown into what he called ``sheer chaos.″

An aquarium was tipped over, its fish lying dead on the muck-covered carpet. The bed had floated up on top of the dressers. The television had floated from the living room to the kitchen.

A battery-powered combat toy lay in the boys’ bedroom, short-circuited and croaking out a garbled song over and over.

Among the strange scenes and sounds that perhaps best pointed to the force and oddity of what has been called a 500-year flood, there was the Coast Guard _ more than 1,200 miles from any coast.

``It’s really weird. It’s something you don’t expect to see in North Dakota,″ said Seaman Eddie Terrebonne.

His Coast Guard crew was helping ferry people to Pembina, a town of 640 people where the 30-mile long crest of the Red River passed into Canada Monday.

The water was expected to take weeks to recede, but now the heaviest flow was surging to its Lake Winnipeg destination about 60 miles away.

Along that path, water overwhelmed a hastily built dike early today and flooded the small town of Ste. Agathe, Manitoba, about 20 miles south of Winnipeg.

Twenty-two people were in the town at the time; the rest of the 500 residents had already evacuated. By the time the last people got out, ``the water was coming in through the west side of town, submerging the town,″ said Royal Canadian Mounted Police Cpl. Joanne Ryll.

``I’ve yet to believe it; it seemed like a dream,″ said Victor Dumesnil, an emergency worker who was among those in the town. ``I never dreamed we would see water come up so fast.″

The crest should reach Winnipeg this weekend. The city’s floodway was expected to protect the city’s 660,000 people, although 17,000 others have been evacuated from small towns to the south.

In Grand Forks, the long, hard cleanup is only beginning, but they still manage to find cause for celebration.

On Monday, a bridge linking the town to East Grand Forks, Minn., reopened, House Majority Leader Dick Armey visited in a show of support, water pressure increased and the alcohol ban was partially lifted.

``We’re coming back to life,″ said Mayor Pat Owens.

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