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Grand Forks loses its fight against Red River

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Fire destroys buildings as residents evacuate

April 19, 1997
Web posted at: 8:45 p.m. EDT (0045 GMT)

GRAND FORKS, North Dakota (CNN) -- After a valiant effort, the people of Grand Forks abandoned their fight Saturday against a relentless Red River described by one observer as "a steadily climbing animal."

Flooding in Grand Forks
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Fire on a flooded street
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About half of Grand Forks, population 50,000, was underwater by Saturday afternoon, after a dike on the south end of the city gave way in the early morning hours. The entire population was being urged to leave their homes, and evacuations were mandatory in some of the hardest-hit areas.

Officials said they would start enforcing those mandatory evacuation orders at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Streets Forks

The Red River was expected to crest sometime Saturday evening at 54 feet, nearly twice the flood stage of 28 feet. Water was expected to remain at record levels for 10 to 12 days.

"We're in this for the long haul, and we're going to have to really put our arms around each other in this community and try to hang together," said North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer.

Residents may be homeless for two weeks

As water continued to spread across Grand Forks' 10 square miles, even some flood shelters had to be evacuated. People were being transported by National Guard trucks and buses to the Grand Forks Air Force Base, 10 miles west, which was being prepared to house 10,000 evacuees.

Long lines of traffic snaked along highways to the west as people tried to get away from the rising waters. Residents were being told to prepare to remain out of their homes for as long as two weeks.

Fire

The city's water treatment plant was shut down, and officials said the water supply could be interrupted for two weeks. The power supply was also threatened.

And in the midst of all of those troubles Saturday afternoon, a fire broke out in several downtown buildings that were surrounded by water. All area residents were ordered to evacuate.

There were reports Saturday night of at least three, and possibly as many as five, buildings on fire. Firefighters were having trouble getting enough water pressure in their hoses to fight the fires and were using planes to drop water on the flames.

On the other side of the Red River in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, an 8-foot dike burst, forcing part of the city to be evacuated and closing the only link between the two cities.

Only one Red River bridge is open to the north

N. Dakota

North of Grand Forks, only one bridge across the Red River -- the border between Minnesota and North Dakota -- remained open. That bridge connects Pembina, North Dakota, and St. Vincent, Minnesota, about 70 miles north of Grand Forks.

The people of Grand Forks spent two weeks preparing, strengthening and building dikes with sandbags, in hopes of coping with the rising river, swollen by a spring rainfall and the melting of a record winter snowfall. But the volume of water proved too much.

"It just came from too many places," said Battalion Chief Bruce Roed of the Grand Forks Fire Department. "There were people working right up to the very end on a lot of the dikes."

Backup dike being built in Fargo

Seventy-five miles upstream at Fargo, officials began building a backup dike to fight water advancing across farmland. They said 200 to 300 homes would wind up on the wrong side of the barrier and could be swamped.

The river in Fargo appeared to be holding steady at 39.53 feet, down from 39.8 feet Friday but still more than 20 feet above flood stage.

Correspondent Jeff Flock contributed to this report.  
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