"ACT OF GOD"
APRIL 21, 1997
Grand Forks, ND, has been the source of incredible stories involving destruction and heart-ache. A 500-year flood forced almost all of the city's 50,000 residents to evacute, and fires gutted a number of downtown buildings over the weekend. Flooding also hit Grand Forks' sister city, East Grand Forks, MN. Community leaders, though, praised the spirit of the flood's victims and vowed to rebuild the city. After a background report by Fred de Sam Lazaro of KTCA-Minneapolis/St. Paul, Jim Lehrer leads a discussion of the flooding and efforts to rebuild the area.
JIM LEHRER: Now, more on this situation. Sen. Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, met with White House officials about the situation today. Michael Armstrong is regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency; his region includes both North and South Dakota. Cheryl Parks is directing American Red Cross efforts in the Red River Valley from Breckenridge, Minnesota, North to Canada. Frank Richards is chief of the Hydraulic Information Center, the branch of the National Weather Service that tracks floods and precipitation. And Edward Schafer is the Republican governor of North Dakota.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
April 21, 1997:
Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on the flooding of Grand Forks, ND.
April 11, 1997:
Fred de Sam Lazaro reports in the flooding in the Upper Great Plains.
Browse the Online NewsHour's enviromental and weather coverage.
Grand Forks Herald
Governor, help the rest of us understand the magnitude of what this means in human terms to the people of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.
EDWARD SCHAFER, Governor, North Dakota: Well, it's a very difficult situation, you know, 50,000 people having to pack up, leave their belongings, leave this community, and not knowing what they're going to come back to. They left with conditions such where their houses may be or may not be inundated with water when they come back. They don't know when their utilities, whether their infrastructure is going to be restored, when they're going to have water, or if their jobs are going to be here when they return home.
JIM LEHRER: I mean, it's devastation of the kind that it's hard to even imagine, much less live through, is that what you're suggesting?
GOV. EDWARD SCHAFER: It is very, very difficult. You can't understand it. We just have hundreds and hundreds of stories of people who have lost everything, and the rest don't know what they're going to return to, so it's a difficult situation. We're trying to get information back to people to see where the floodwaters have come, where damage might be done, how high the water might be in their homes, but it just--it's impossible to comprehend the human emotional destruction that takes place when your whole community, not only your home and your neighborhood, but your whole community is displaced out and scattered all over other areas of the state.
JIM LEHRER: Senator, what would you add to that, just to help us understand what this means?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN, (D) North Dakota: I'm almost out of adjectives. This is a devastating tragedy to our region, and, you know, we had three years' worth of snow in three months, raging blizzards.
JIM LEHRER: Three years of snow?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Three years' worth of snow in three months, raging blizzards, people sandbagging in blizzards to fight a flood. The head of the Corps of Engineers, the general, told me today that this was the greatest effort he'd ever seen by local people to fight a flood, and yet, you know, in Grand Forks, that flood broke the dikes, and--
JIM LEHRER: Why did the dikes break?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, I mean, there was just so much pressure, and this is a 500-year flood. It's not going to break the human spirit. These are wonderful people in our region of the country. You know, what we face now is to get through--this is sort of a slow-motion disaster. You know, most of the time a tornado hits, and it's over, or an earthquake. We're going to see a crest probably tonight in Grand Forks, and it'll be around for five, six days. And it'll be weeks before people get back into their homes, so--and--
JIM LEHRER: Because the water has to go down, and how long will it take for that water to go down?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, it will be around at crest level for five to seven days, we're told. You see, this river runs North into an ice bed up in Canada, and so it runs very slowly, and this is not like most river floods where you have a torrent going down that takes houses with it.
JIM LEHRER: And it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico or somewhere.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Right. I flew over twice this weekend, and I mean, it's just--you can't see a river. All you see is a mass of water throughout the Red River.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Richards, 500 year flood, is that right?
FRANK RICHARDS, National Weather Service: Could very well be that magnitude, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what does that mean?
FRANK RICHARDS: That means that, on average, we'd see that twice a millennium. It doesn't mean that we couldn't have it next year, but, in general, it means it's an extremely rare event. The term "act of God," this is appropriate for this event.
JIM LEHRER: Now, you heard the Senator's description of what caused this to happen.
FRANK RICHARDS: Very good meteorology.
JIM LEHRER: But is he right, that five or six more days of crest, that means that the water at its highest level that it's going to be, and it's going to stay there for another five or six days?
FRANK RICHARDS: That's right. It's very, very slow responding. It's a very flat area. The ice slows it down, and in addition to the ice, the slope of the river is only one foot per mile. There's nothing pushing that.
JIM LEHRER: What do you mean? You mean, there's no place for it to run off here?
FRANK RICHARDS: The slope is very, very gradual. If you've put a bowling ball on this table here, it wouldn't go any place because the table is flat. The river is almost that flat. There's not gravity pulling it North to the Canadians.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: And the other key here is this is one of the only rivers in America that runs North, so it's running into Canada and running into ice.
FRANK RICHARDS: It melts from the South, tries to move forward into the ice that slows it down.
JIM LEHRER: Why does it run North?
FRANK RICHARDS: That's just the way that Mother Nature put it together. The basin, itself, was formed by a glacier hundreds of thousands of years ago, and it's very, very flat, and it essentially drains into Lake Winnipeg.
JIM LEHRER: I see. All right. Ms. Parks, tell us about what's going on on the ground from your perspective. What are the basic needs of the people of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks right now?
CHERYL PARKS, American Red Cross: Well, many of the folks are leaving the town, and they need a place to stay, so we've opened up a shelter, and at that shelter we're meeting the needs that they may have. They may have needs for comfort items. They may need medical care.
JIM LEHRER: Did they leave with their clothes? For instance, do they have clothes? Were they given enough notice to where they could take some of their own belongings with them?
CHERYL PARKS: Yes. Some of them were, but they grabbed things quickly and left, and what the American Red Cross is doing, is we are planning to help them with additional clothing needs. We're meeting with the individuals one on one. We're also doing bulk distributions of sweat suits and underwear and T-shirts and things for they--to have a second change of clothing.
JIM LEHRER: Is it cold, what's the--what's the temperature up there right now?
CHERYL PARKS: It's about 50 degrees during the day, so it gets cool at night, and we are using a lot of blankets and linens and pillows to make them as comfortable as possible. We do have cots that people are sleeping on.
JIM LEHRER: And where are those cots set up, in what kind of places?
CHERYL PARKS: Well, our largest shelters at the Grand Forks Air Force Base and where we have over 3,000 residents in there, we also have 11 shelters--
JIM LEHRER: Now, excuse me. That's in an old hangar, right, an--I mean, an air base hangar? We saw a shot of it earlier at the beginning. Those people are all in one big, huge room, is that right?
CHERYL PARKS: Well, actually it's three hangars.
JIM LEHRER: Three hangars.
CHERYL PARKS: Right. About a thousand per hangar, and we also have shelters set up at schools, and for colleges as far East as Red Devils, and then also as far West as Devil's Lake.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. And how--for those of us not familiar with the geography, how many miles are you talking about there--each way?
CHERYL PARKS: I would say over 120 miles outside of the city.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
CHERYL PARKS: Of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, both ways. We also are receiving for people here in Fargo, which is 80 miles South of the area, and also there are people going into Canada, evacuating out of the area.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Armstrong, what are you telling the folks that their government at any level can do for them right now?
MICHAEL ARMSTRONG, FEMA: (Grand Forks, ND) Well, I think the first thing that we can do is offer people a sense of hope, a sense that they're not in this by themselves, and that we're working to support their state and local government. We have mobilized the federal government from a variety of agency levels. The Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Transportation, the Public Health Service, the General Services Administration, the Department of Defense have all been terrific in supporting this effort, getting facilities set up for emergency shelters, working with the American Red Cross, and making sure that the basic needs of people displaced out of their homes are being met.
JIM LEHRER: What do you anticipate is going to happen next? I mean, when the water does finally recede and when--when people can start going back in there, what are you going to do then? What are they going to come back and see?
MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: Well, the first thing we need to do is make sure that victims work with their local public health officials so that it's safe to go back in, and that they're not endangering themselves further. Secondly, we want to make sure that everybody uses our 1-800 number, which is: 1-800-462-9029.
JIM LEHRER: Say that again.
MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: 1-800-462-9029.
JIM LEHRER: And what will they get if they call that number?
MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: If they call that number, they will be put in the process of applying for assistance, so that they can start to rebuild their lives after the waters recede. We don't make any promises that we can make people whole, but we can people started again. And it's a cooperative effort that requires a partnership between federal, state, and local government. And it's also going to require some smart rebuilding and some smart local planning in terms of how to build and where to build in the flood plains, so we have long-term mitigation issues as well.
JIM LEHRER: Governor, have you all had a chance to think about that? I mean, what happens to Grand Forks when this is all over with? Do you try to rebuild it the way it was before, or do you try to move it? What do you do?
GOV. EDWARD SCHAFER: Well, I think the basic infrastructure is here. Obviously, we'll have to look at some of the rebuilding along the river and along this flood plain, but we feel that Grand Forks is a good, solid base here. The economy of the region is good. We had an emergency cabinet meeting today with our state services and state agencies, and we're going to be putting all of our efforts back in here as soon as possible to rebuild the community. And I'm every bit convinced that Grand Forks, North Dakota, when we get through this disaster and we rebuild this community, it is going to be better than it was before that we started this disaster.
JIM LEHRER: Just to go back through the situation now, Governor, and Ms. Parks and Mr. Armstrong and Senator, if you would add to this as we go through, there's nobody going to school now in Grand Forks, is that right?
GOV. EDWARD SCHAFER: That's correct. The schools have been closed, and students are being taken into other community schools in the area so they can continue their education.
JIM LEHRER: There's no running water of any kind, right?
GOV. EDWARD SCHAFER: That's correct.
JIM LEHRER: No clean water. When do you think there would be clean water? Don't know? No way to know?
GOV. EDWARD SCHAFER: Our anticipation now is maybe two weeks before we could get the water facility back up. It could be as much as three weeks before that public water plant will be in place. Now, we do have several million gallons of water capacity coming in. We'll be able to set up stations where water--clean water--will be available. That would be on a temporary basis and only at certain collection spots.
JIM LEHRER: And that's outside of Grand Forks, right? You're talking about outside of Grand Forks, where the evacuees are.
GOV. EDWARD SCHAFER: Yeah. Where the evacuees are. We do have running water, and the infrastructures there, but this would be when people start returning to their communities if the water plant isn't up and running that we will be able to have temporary positions for water, where people can go get their water and still get moved back into their neighborhoods.
JIM LEHRER: Senator.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Jim, if I might make a point--that the flood circumstance in Grand Forks is devastating, but the flood has not yet hit Pembina, Grafton, Drayton, North Dakota, and it's going to be difficult--
JIM LEHRER: These are on--further up--
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: They're further up North. And second, it's not just the flood. You know, the devastating circumstances of Grand Forks are obvious to everyone. We lost 150,000 head of cattle in all of these--
JIM LEHRER: A hundred and fifty thousand--
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: A hundred and fifty thousand. And we have nearly 2 million acres of agricultural land that's flooded, underwater. Much of it probably will never be planted this year, so, you know--
JIM LEHRER: Plus, it's usually planted in--would be--
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Wheat in the Red River Valley, and sugar beets, potatoes, but, you know, this--this disaster is fairly widespread and results from a significant number of events this winter, blizzard on top of blizzard, about seven of them, the last of which put nearly two feet of snow in North Dakota, and we have never experienced this in our lifetime, and never will again, I expect.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Yes, go ahead. Yes, Ms. Parks.
CHERYL PARKS: Yes. I just like to say that the emotional trauma that everyone is having to go through in this area is just unbelievable; that clients are coming into our shelter, coming into our service centers, responding to other chapters; they are so distraught. They don't know what is going to happen to them. They don't know where they're going to go. The American Red Cross is here to help--
JIM LEHRER: What do you tell these--what do you tell these folks?
CHERYL PARKS: Well, we take ‘em and we talk with ‘em and we show ‘em there is hope, and we tell ‘em about the resources that are going to be available to them. We help ‘em focus on what their immediate needs are, and then we help ‘em turn around their lives and get back to recovery.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Jim, you know, they had this movie "Fargo" that pictured our part of the country.
JIM LEHRER: Right. I remember.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: The real story captured on film these days is about the human spirit up there, of tough people getting through this crisis together. I mean, I can't tell you about the heroes, so many of them in so many ways struggling to get through this. They are wonderful people, and the governor is absolutely right. I mean, we will get through this, and we will build, and it'll be a better day, but, boy, this is a time when we need to have the rest of the country reach out and help our region.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Mr. Armstrong, you are there as a representative of the rest of us, in other words, the rest of us in terms of the government of the United States. What is it that the government of the United States can do to make this thing work for these people and make it--make them whole not only in their physical properties, but also in their minds at this point?
MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: We provide crisis counseling. We provide answers in terms of where to find money to start over again, but I think there's a healing process that has to occur that, that no government can provide. We have been fighting disasters here in this state. We've had seven presidential declarations in the last five years, and so what--to understand the full impact of this disaster it isn't just the drama of the film footage in Grand Forks; it's the fact that we've had standing water on many acres of farmland in this state for many years running that people have lost their businesses; that major transportation routes have been underwater.
We've been in a wet cycle now for a number of growing seasons, so there are other long-range issues that have psychological and emotional impacts that we are just going to see surfacing now at this latest incident. And so we as a government work closely with volunteer agencies and other organizations that can provide counseling, that can provide a sense of a future. The future may not be the same as the past, but there is a future ahead. We're already starting a recovery effort in other parts of the state, in the western part of the state, and in South Dakota. And that recovery will come to North Dakota s well. It's just going to take a little bit longer this time.
JIM LEHRER: The story is a long--
CHERYL PARKS: May I--
JIM LEHRER: This story is a long way from being over. Yes, ma'am, just quickly, Ms. Parks, yes.
CHERYL PARKS: Yes. I just want to thank all the other voluntary agents that are working together with all of us.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
CHERYL PARKS: The Salvation Army, United Way, and all the community workers that have been working so hard to meet the needs of the folks here.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Ms. Parks, gentlemen, thank you all very much.