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Flood doesn’t keep prom spirit down

June 28, 1997

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. (AP) _ Aleece Whitcomb was a flood refugee the last time she was here, sleeping on a rickety cot in an airplane hangar and watching TV in horror as her hometown flooded and then burned.

But Saturday, the same hangar that served as a temporary home to the frightened 17-year-old girl was the setting for her prom, a rite of passage many Grand Forks high school students thought the Red River flood had stolen.

``I never really thought I would want to go back,″ Whitcomb said Saturday as she waited at a friend’s house to get her hair cut and styled. ``Staying there, even though everyone was really nice and all, it was just a very stressful time.″

But bad memories couldn’t keep her and more than 1,200 other students from the prom for the city’s two high schools. For many, it was the first chance to see their friends since flooding forced schools to close abruptly in April.

``We never got to say goodbye to a lot of people,″ Whitcomb said. ``So that makes this special to us.″

The city of Grand Forks was devastated in April when dikes protecting the community broke, sending a rage of floodwaters through its streets.

Ninety percent of the 50,000 residents were forced to evacuate, many ending up at the Air Force base 15 miles west. Fire leveled several downtown blocks.

The city has been trying to recover. But Grand Forks’ two public high schools suffered too much damage to hold the proms on campus.

So the Air Force stepped in again, turning a stark steel and concrete maintenance hangar into a huge ballroom.

The stone path leading to the hangar was lined with plastic shrubs and bushes. A white, flower-covered archway led onto the dance floor. In one corner was a white gazebo surrounded by plastic street lights and park benches. Tables, punch and snacks waited in another.

About the only reminder that this was still a military base was the ever-present military police and the camouflage netting used to mask tools and lockers along the hangar walls.

``We’ve just been overwhelmed by the generosity of the air base,″ said Terri Horpedahl, activities director for Red River High School. ``I can’t say enough about all they’ve done for the kids, and for the whole community.″

Designers donated some 500 dresses, and a Minneapolis formal wear shop donated 250 rental tuxedos. A floral company shipped 500 white roses to decorate tables, and local businesses supplied nearly all the decorations, furniture and ornaments.

Even the music came free. Minneapolis-based Soul Asylum, known for alternative hits such as ``Runaway Train,″ decided to play its first prom gig.

``It just seemed like the obvious thing to do,″ said drummer Dan Murphy.

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