[Editor’s note: Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of the evacuation of Grand Forks and the burning of the original High Plains Reader office. This piece was originally written Tuesday April 22, 1997.]
"Get up! There's water coming in the basement and we're being evacuated!"
It is about 6:30 Saturday morning. After four hours work at the Midco 10 Theatre Friday, getting the films and projectors ready for the weekend's shows, I had spent the rest of the afternoon helping my parents move a few of our more valued possessions up from the basement. Especially my 10-month-old Pentium 166, boxes of floppy disks, and valuable multi-volume film reference encyclopedias.
Then I walked down to check out the nearby Belmont Road dike, taking a few pictures to compare with my home movies of the 79 flood. The water was high, but the dike seemed strong, if soggy in spots.
Friday night I had gone sandbagging in the Burke Addition, somewhere in the 6400 block. One of the students in my film class was in the same sandbag line. Sand ran out around 10pm. Even with only four hours of sleep the night before, with warnings of possible overnight basement water in my area, I had stayed up until about 4:30am, alternately checking website photos of the flood progress and checking the sump well downstairs. Floors and walls all dry. Sump pump working regularly. We won't get anything after all.
Troubled dreams. Then sirens. Loudspeakers. My mother's worried voice. "Come on. Get up. We've got to go. Now!"
Coffee. Need coffee. But how come there's no daily newspaper? What happened in two hours? Their web site was active. One last email to a friend in Michigan. Short and to the point. "We're going under. Mandatory evacuation of city residents."
Get dressed. No time for coffee. Shave. Check suitcase hastily packed yesterday "just in case" but never expecting to use. Add a few things. Virgil's Aeneid. A tourist guide to Egypt. The Hermetica. My film textbooks and class records. Pillows, blankets, flashlights, jackets, extra shoes.
We'll be going to Aneta, ND, to stay with in-laws for a few days. I'll be able to get some work and reading done while the flood crests tonight and goes down over the next day or two.
But now the supposedly sealed floor drains are leaking. Gotta move more things upstairs. A couple more films. A few more books. A few posters. Oh, and my income tax records. My 50-year-old tux. And this antique home movie projector. The home movies are on a high shelf. They should be OK. The rest? Well, a lot of it could be replaced. Some can't, but oh, well... it'll only be a few inches deep anyway. A foot or two at the most.
"Hurry! There's water in the street now!" Gotta get pictures of the water spreading across the floor.
Need to have a picture of the house with the water. "I'll meet you at Red River High School (aptly named!) for the Red Cross evacuation registration."
Water too deep on 17th already. Can't have my car stall now. Have to take Oak over to 24th, then down to 20th and back to Red River.
It's 8:30am now. Red River is crowded. It's also serving as a shelter. Network news cameras are setting up. Time to check in at the desk. Drink coffee. Two cups. Grab some food to eat in the car. Use bathroom. It still works here. For now. My father finds his map of the state so I can be sure of the correct road numbers to take. I copy them down. Now let's go. "See you in Aneta."
First I get gas, but I can't reach my usual station on Washington and DeMers so I go to one near 15th Ave. South. There's a line of cars.
I stop at the theatre and leave a note for my manager, letting her know where I'll be (I'm scheduled to work tonight). Then out to the University to pick up a few books at my office and leave a note with the English Department. A lone professor is working at her computer. She plans to stick it out. At 9:50am, a line of cars is starting to grow along University Avenue heading west. The coulee is just starting to cross the road.
It's around 11am when I reach Aneta. Press conference on the car radio. UND has officially ended its spring semester. Where is that house again? Can't be too hard to find in a town this size. There it is. Brief family reunion.
Hey! They got today's paper here! Then hours of TV news bulletins, mostly messages for displaced people to contact each other. News footage every now and then. Incredible, the depth of the water. And then, what's that? Oh, no! A fire. The old Security Building! My office used to be in there. Right on the corner there on the first floor. Look at it burn! What a shame. The whole block could go if they can't put it out. Griggs' Landing was next door. Then Ian's apartment.
The new offices of the High Plains Reader were on the end in the old Sears building.
New video footage. The block has been destroyed overnight and the fire has spread, skipping diagonally with the wind over to 4th Street. There goes the old High Plains Reader office, the Golden Square building, and virtually the entire block along with it.
What day is this? It's after midnight, so it's Sunday already. Or is it only Sunday? Asleep around 12:30 or 1am. Waking up every few hours. Habit, now, I guess. Finally get up about 9:30 with close to 8 hours of sleep after 63 hours with only 6 hours of sleep.
Go to 10:30 church service and there's a lady who lives just a block away back in Grand Forks. Amazing. She had relocated in Hatton.
Big Sunday dinner with in-laws in Aneta. Why does it feel like Thanksgiving dinner?
More TV coverage. The fire seems to be out now, only smoldering. Did they say there was some damage to the Empire Theatre? Why don't they show it? That was supposed to reopen this fall after its million-dollar-plus renovation.
The dike on Belmont has been completely breached and the water is still rising. More of the city is being evacuated. It looks like two to three week minimum, maybe a month or more, before anyone can move back.
Why don't I call the Reader? I've got pictures of the flood and an evacuation in progress. "You're alive! Come on down! There's a couch with your name on it!"
It's late in the day. First I'll get a good night's sleep (?) and get there tomorrow. I'll head back to Grand Forks in the morning and finish off the roll of film in the camera. I can stop by the theatre and move the outgoing film prints that were never picked up on Friday back up to the second floor, just in case.
Monday morning. Another section of the city is being evacuated, including the block with the Midco 10 Theatre. People are instructed not to return to the city, and there are National Guard checkpoints surrounding the evacuated areas. I come back anyway, reaching town around 11am.
Coincidentally, the first guardsman I meet is in my film class. I can get in but I must surrender my driver's license to a guardsman at the checkpoint across the street.
The water is over much of Columbia Road now, as well as sections of 32nd Avenue Southwest of Washington Street. I stop by the theatre and rescue the Star Wars trilogy from oblivion, as well as five other recently-ended films. Then I get gas at the 32nd Amoco, one of the few stations still open.
The next four hours I walk up and down South Washington from 32nd to about 15th Avenue South, taking pictures and taking note of the mass of national media assembled. A long row of reporters' cars, vans, and satellite transmitter trucks lines Washington, south of 32nd.
North of 15th a huge dike construction project along the center of Washington is in progress, trucks and trucks of sand and dirt lining up with their loads, leaving, and returning with more.
Everything east of Washington is a lake in motion, with houses planted in it. The current is so swift near 15th that it looks like whitewater rapids. Debris and an abandoned toy float by. Further south there is a whirlpool in what used to be a drainage ditch.
Stations from the Twin Cities wander around getting footage and interviewing flood workers. ABC and Fox network news reporters rehearse and record their sober, sad-faced commentaries. The water rescue unit stands by to go after pets reported left behind. The sheriff's department shows up to assess the situation. The trucks of sand keep coming.
It's getting late. Time to head back. Don't want to drive on detour roads in the dark.
Wait a minute! The National Guard checkpoint where I left my driver's license is gone! There's another one down at Columbia and 24th, the other side of a curb-to-curb pool. That guardswoman doesn't have it, but after a few minutes she locates the unit, sending me down 24th through radiator-deep water to the intersection of South 20th and 24th Avenue South. I retrieve my license, chat for a few minutes, and head cautiously through the water to find my way back to the Interstate out of town.
To avoid the official detour to Fargo, which has a reputation for very slow traffic, I take Highway 15 over to 32 and go south to I-94, then east into Fargo. That way I can also make a 10-minute stop back in Aneta, bring everybody up to date on water depths, and grab a couple of sandwiches to eat on the road.
It's ten to seven when I reach Fargo, but no one's at the Reader office, so I stop in the Fargo Theatre and visit for a while. The Reader staff return around 8:30, welcoming me with open arms (literally, it's true!). I get a quick tour of the offices and the historic office building, a set of keys, check my e-mail, and then start typing away on a laptop.
This article gets wrapped up at close to 3:30 Tuesday morning. It doesn't seem like 3:30am and it doesn't seem like Tuesday.
It has been a weekend that will not be rivaled until we are allowed to return to see what is left.
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