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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 river has risen to 54 feet, nearly twice the flood stage of 26 feet. The National Weather Service said the Red should remain at its current level for several days.

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

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 Wahpeton and Fargo, south of Grand Forks, were inundated last week. Now the Red is threatening smaller towns near the Canadian border and the Canadian province of Manitoba.

Residents of Drayton and Pembina, cities in northern North Dakota, and Emerson and Dominion City, near the border in Canada, were asked to leave their homes.

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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