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Red River Rising

The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City

Ashley Shelby

Publication Year: 2003

On April 19, 1997, in one of the most dramatic floods in U.S. history, more than 50,000 people abandoned their homes and businesses in Grand Forks, North Dakota. A nation watched as the heart of downtown, engulfed by a river, burst into flames above the water line. Like Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Red River Rising is a compelling true-life narrative about the confluence of natural forces and human error that shaped one of the greatest natural disasters in U.S. history. Ashley Shelby tells the dramatic stories of the flood: the suspenseful, blizzard-filled spring; the difficulties scientists had in predicting the river's crest; the struggles of people who fought the rising waters and of those who marshalled the city's forces. Despite technological advances in meteorology, despite the brute force of hundreds of earth movers, despite the utter determination of thousands who built and walked the levees, the river won. This book is a gripping story of the terrific cost of natural disasters and a fascinating portrait of how ordinary people rose to an extraordinary challenge. It is also a clear-eyed examination of the disastrous aftermath: the second-guessing and blame directed at the National Weather Service, at city and federal officials, and at the people of Grand Forks themselves as they struggled to rebuild. With empathy and penetrating intelligence, Shelby uncovers the conflicts, conspiracy theories, and recrimination that tore at the community after the waters fell. Through the powerful stories of memorable individuals Red River Rising gives us new perspective on disaster and community. Praise for Red River Rising “Red River Rising is a beautifully written, haunting saga of a community in distress. Although the touchstone of this narrative is April 19, 1997, when one of the worst floods in U.S. history occurred, in truth it's a gripping human drama with timeless appeal. Words cannot fully express the admiration I have for Ashley Shelby's seamless and compassionate prose-style.” — Douglas Brinkley, author of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans.

Published by: Minnesota Historical Society Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xii

It’s late June 2000 and I am driving northwest on I-94, that lonely trucker’s passage into the big bad West. The hand-painted signs for buffalo meat begin showing up in fallow soybean fields around Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Crumbling silos stand like tired sentries over farms that have fallen into disuse or been reduced to hobbies. At the turnoff to I-29, the city of Fargo...

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1. The Way Winter Ends

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pp. 3-21

On either side of any highway, the land of the Red River valley unfolds across the earth in what seems, in places, like an endless repetition of the same acre. In the dark, cold mornings of a northern winter, the grain elevators slowly materialize from the shadows as hulking, sluggish monsters. The sky is big, and sunrise first appears there as slender ribbons of pale...

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2. River Town

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pp. 22-34

Towns will perish in major floods—many already have. The Mississippi has swept away whole communities while carving itself a new path. Mark Twain noted a number of Delta towns that became river debris, as well as a few that were simply exiled behind a newly formed sandbar, ending their run as river towns. The grandest American river city of them all, New...

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3. Watersick

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pp. 35-52

Mike Anderson’s business card does not have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seal printed on it, as his colleague Steve Buan’s does. Instead, below his name, position, and office address at the North Central River Forecast Center is a drawing of a tiny, drenched dog sitting in a pool of water and looking forlorn. The hydrologist doesn’t say the dog...

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4. Red River Rising

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pp. 53-78

Two days earlier, on Thursday, April 10, the National Weather Service had issued its first flood crest outlook in a week. It was the same number— 49 feet—that it had been predicting since late February. The prediction was perplexing to many people who had just spent a week shivering in homes that had lost power and heat due to the blizzard. Hannah had...

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5. Flood and Fire

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pp. 79-101

Pat Owens had just put a load of laundry in the machine at her home on South Seventeenth Avenue, the west side of town. It was one o’clock on Friday morning, April 18. She hoped to grab at least an hour of sleep before returning to the operations center downtown. The mayor had just fallen asleep when her phone rang. It was Charles Grotte, the assistant...

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6. Devastation

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pp. 102-123

Grand Forks looked like an occupied city. The only vehicles operating in town were Humvees, tractor-trailers, helicopters, firebombing planes, and boats. Thousands of people were camped in the F-16 hangar at the air force base. Three blocks of downtown looked as if they had been bombed—the rubble still smoldered. Each structure that had been irretrievably damaged...

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7. Angels and Devils

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pp. 127-155

Old Testament prophets were obsessed with disasters because they presaged a great change or because they were delivered as retribution for bad behavior, a grave transgression. What, people in Grand Forks wondered, was their transgression, and how would their city change? Grand Forks citizens had already suffered the loss of almost everything material, the...

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8. The Value of Home

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pp. 156-169

On May 21, 1997, Edward Johnson sent a polite e-mail to Leon Osborne asking if he could visit Osborne’s Regional Weather Information Center. Co-leader of the National Weather Service Assessment Team, Johnson worked in the NWS’s Kansas City regional office. He asked Osborne for a general description of the model he had used to come up with his nearly accurate...

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9. The Mistake

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pp. 170-184

Meteorology is the rock star of the earth sciences. Geology is a patient science, one in which great leaps of faith are made, but it wears a worn tweed suit with patches on the elbows and has a nervous cough. Biology, its taxonomic estate crowded with families, keeps its eye to the microscope, turning a cold shoulder to the public. But meteorology—and the complementary...

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10. To Rebuild a City You Must Take It Apart

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pp. 185-210

In the warming summer of 1997, everywhere residents of Grand Forks turned, they saw red-jacketed Corps engineers. The Corps, which had almost immediately identified an extensive levee system as the city’s best flood control option, was under pressure by homeowners who were rumored to be in danger of losing their homes to the new dike. The immediate...

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11. Flood Angst

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pp. 211-222

In the leanest years, when droughts regularly turned corn stalks into pillars of dust and wiped out harvest after harvest, North Dakota farmers often canvassed the prairies near their farms and collected buffalo bones. The grasslands of North Dakota were littered with those bleached and broken skeletons. When he had reaped enough, the farmer bundled them and...

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12. Disaster Democracy

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pp. 223-234

Pat Owens’ modest split-level house on Thirteenth Avenue was the object of some controversy in the weeks following the flood, when it was clear that she had not suffered as much damage as she had claimed in an emotionally charged press conference held during evacuations. Three years later, all the black shutters of this home were tightly closed, as if the house...

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13. After the Flood

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pp. 235-241

On June 27, 2000, Pat Owens, Ken Vein, Lisa Hedin, and other city and Corps officials gathered near the banks of the Red River. Owens placed her silver shovel halfway into the gravel near the Riverside Park dam and posed for pictures. The next day her first and last mayoral term would officially end. In the two weeks following her defeat, she was presented with even...


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pp. 243-255

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 257-262

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pp. 263-265

This story of the 1997 Red River of the North flood is incomplete. The flooding also devastated another city, just across the Red River from Grand Forks, and its story of recovery is much different from that of its sister. East Grand Forks, a much smaller community, has a story to tell. I hope someone tells it. In addition, many heroes in the flood fight of 1997 remain unsung: city...

E-ISBN-13: 9780873516945
E-ISBN-10: 087351694X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780873515009
Print-ISBN-10: 0873515005

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2003

Edition: 1

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Subject Headings

  • Floods -- North Dakota -- Grand Forks Region.
  • Floods -- Red River of the North.
  • Disaster relief -- North Dakota -- Grand Forks Region.
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