Seeking post-flood hope, inspiration in Grand Forks

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Once again, natural disaster has brought national attention to this town on the banks of the Red River.

In the past week, delegations from flooded Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and from St. Bernard Parish outside New Orleans, still reeling nearly three years later from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, have come to Grand Forks looking for hope, inspiration and answers.

They toured residential neighborhoods inundated by the river in 1997 but protected now by a massive new system of dikes and floodwalls. They took in an art fest in a lively downtown that burned 11 years ago during the flood.

“We’ve become something of a poster community for disaster recovery,” said Kevin Dean, the city’s information officer and tour guide for the visitors from Iowa and Louisiana.

“We showed them the successes we’ve been able to celebrate since our flood. Eleven years ago, there was not a lot of optimism here. There was not a lot of hope. But we’ve seen that, with a lot of hard work, we can recover.”

‘An immediate kindred spirit’
The Louisiana visitors “felt an immediate kindred spirit with the folks in Grand Forks,” Dean said. “As soon as they got here, they felt a connection. I think the Cedar Rapids delegation did, as well. They saw we could understand the types of things they’re going through and the challenges that lie ahead.”

The nine-person delegation from St. Bernard parish, southeast of New Orleans, came to Grand Forks for four days at the suggestion of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was led by Craig Taffaro, president of the parish, and included other government and business leaders.

“They are really struggling with some issues 2½ years into recovery,” Dean said. “FEMA has told us before that they’re proud of the efforts we’ve made here, and they asked us to explain our successes and some of the pitfalls we had to overcome.”

The Louisiana delegation had just left town — after a barbecue in East Grand Forks’ rebuilt downtown, hosted by Mayor Lynn Stauss — when Cedar Rapids called. Even as their downtown remained engulfed by floodwaters, they had looked around the country for hope and guidance, and they said they wanted to see the post-flood Grand Forks.

Visited for five hours
“They were only here for five hours, but they talked with City Council members, our former city engineer, bankers and other business leaders,” Dean said. “It was a very focused conversation. They all had legal pads and were writing as fast as they could.”

One of the business leaders they met with was Kim Holmes, owner and chef at Sanders, a popular high-end restaurant that was destroyed in the flood but later reopened downtown. Financial help will come from government, he told them, but the most critical ingredient in recovery is hard work.

The images from Cedar Rapids brought back memories of 1997, Holmes said. “When I saw the pictures on the news the other night, I started to tear up.”

Grand Forks leaders told the visitors not to waste time fretting.

“You have to make decisions quickly,” Dean said. “They admitted they were getting people already clamoring for information, for decisions. We told them that there’s nothing that’s not important. You have to deal with everything head on. Go ahead and make decisions. They may not all be perfect. You may have to go back and adjust things. But make decisions.

Recovery strains everything
“We told them they’re going to have to deal with anger, sadness and disbelief. We talked about the strain the recovery period will put on relationships, marriages, businesses. Treat your people well — do the best you can by them — but understand you can’t make everyone whole.”

Grand Forks had a population of about 47,500 before the flood, and predictions that the city would lose a fourth of its people were common when the river receded, the fire was put out and the extent of the damage was clear. The 2000 Census showed a loss of about 3,500.

“But we were able to tell these folks that our population has rebounded and we’re approaching 55,000” in Grand Forks, Dean said. “They could look at new businesses that have come here. We’re repaired our streets and infrastructure, there’s new housing, and you see a clean and vibrant community.”

People in Cedar Rapids may still be in shock. “It hit them incredibly fast,” Dean said.

“We told them, ‘You are going to have a lot of angry people, people looking to blame someone because they lost their home, lost their business. We told them they have to sustain hope. And we said we’d love to come and visit their city in 10 years and see what they’ve been able to do. They said they hoped we’d come sooner.”

Room for anger
Doug Neumann, president of the Cedar Rapids downtown district, told the Grand Forks Herald that one of the valuable lessons he learned here was the need to be prepared for tempers flaring as his city works toward recovery. Early on in Grand Forks, leaders convened a town hall meeting to allow residents to vent about delays, bureaucracy — anything.

“There has to be room for anger,” Neumann said.

But expect compassion, too, from far and wide, Grand Forks told the visitors.

“We’re eager to help because this is one small way we have to repay the kindness we saw 11 years ago,” Dean said.
 
“There were so many unknown people around the country who helped us with donations, as volunteers, or with their prayers.”

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