Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Revisiting the flood of '97...

Posted 5/02/17 (Tue)

It was this week in 1997 that the Langdon Community Center was completely full of people who were displaced from the catastrophic flood that hit Grand Forks.

City leaders decided to take in Grand Forks residents because many of them simply had no place else to go.

In the first few days when people started arriving, it seemed like organized chaos, but as the days passed, these people began to realize they had a second home in Langdon.

The city was kind to them, local residents were kind to them and brought boatloads of donations and even school kids got into the act by entertaining displaced children who became bored and anxious from being stuck in a building with close to 100 people at the peak.

But that’s how Langdon is and it’s how it’s always been. The community reaches out and has a pro active stance when it comes to events like this.

That includes what happened down stream on the Red River. As the shock of what took place in Grand Forks was being absorbed by everyone, the city of Pembina was about to be breached.

It was about to suffer the same fate as Grand Forks when a group of 20 plus people from Langdon stepped in to help Pembina bail out and shore up the dikes. People from other communities were involved in saving Pembina also, but Langdon is certainly credited with being one of the spokes in that wheel.

There’s something about that community that is instilled in everyone to be good neighbors and help people get back on their feet.

And when you ask somebody why they helped Grand Forks and Pembina, they’ll all tell you that’s what Grand Forks and Pembina would have done for us.

There’s no doubt the flood of ‘97 showed the powerful force of nature that none of us could comprehend at the time, but it also showed the powerful force of generosity from the community of Langdon.

Those of us in journalism in North Dakota all remember the fate of the Grand Forks Herald and how it won a Pulitzer Prize for continuing to publish through the worst time in the city’s history.

As the Herald building began taking on water, the presses continued to roll until the press room was flooding and the workers had to bail out or drown.

It was an incredible show of human professionalism even as their own homes were being destroyed.

In the days immediately following the breach of the dike in Grand Forks, the Herald was out every day as usual, but one thing was strikingly different. There were no ads in the newspaper.

It published without ads because those people who were staged in a Grand Forks Air Force Base hangar or in the Langdon Community Center, needed something to keep them sane.

We later learned that the Grand Forks Herald was “the glue” that kept the community together.

Shortly after the flood, another Langdon connection played a major role in the flood of ‘97.

Jay Johnson, who grew up in Walhalla and worked at the Cavalier County Republican in Langdon a year earlier, was studying for his master’s degree at UND.

He said Herald leadership grabbed anyone it could with journalism experience to become de facto reporters during that trying time.

After he was assigned, Jay was escorted downtown in a National Guard boat. He said it was dark outside, there wasn’t a soul around and lights were on all over the city and there wasn’t a sound other than the motor of the National Guard vehicle.

Jay said it was the most eerie feeling he has ever had.

We all remember it took months before residents were allowed to go back to their homes in Grand Forks. And when they got there, they found total devastation which took several more months to straighten out.

Ironically, it was the worst flood since 1897 so it truly was a 100-year flood. And as college students in 1989, we were called to fill sandbags for that flood that paled in comparison to 1997.

Pembina didn’t fare as badly, but perhaps it was easier to save than Grand Forks because that city had 550 people while Grand Forks had 50,000.

But, it was an amazing recovery as Jay Johnson pointed out. Fifty-thousand people were evacuated and there were no fatalities and no known injuries.

That’s a huge credit to the North Dakota National Guard for getting people out safely and it’s a huge credit to the community of Langdon for keeping at least some Grand Forks residents safe, warm and welcome.