Flood Forecasting Still A Challenge Since Historic 1997 Flood & Fire in the Grand Cities

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (KVRR) — Twenty-five years ago today, floodwaters could no longer be held back in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks leading to catastrophic loss of property.

It’s something people who lived there will never forget.

One man who still lives in Grand Forks was part of the National Weather Service at the time, a place some people and politicians blamed for a bad flood prediction.

Never mind the wet cycle and record-breaking snowfall of just under 100 inches that season, leading to the Flood of the Century.

The images today are as shocking as they were, playing out in real time, 25 years ago.

The Grand Cities under siege by the rising Red River of the North.

President Bill Clinton visited to see the damage days later and said, “The next few days are going to be very, very hard on a lot of people.”

April 18, 1997: dikes in the Lincoln Drive neighborhood of Grand Forks break with others to follow sending flood waters up to three miles away.

Thousands of people are evacuated as buildings are flooded from homes and businesses to schools.

The river would crest three days later at a record 54.35 feet. Many criticized the National Weather Service flood prediction of 49 feet saying if they had earlier warning they could have saved their possessions.

“Was the winter if ’96-’97 normal? No, we had record snowfalls,” said Mark Ewens.

Ewens is a meteorologist at KNOX Radio. But in 1997, he was just a couple of years into working at the National Weather Service office in Grand Forks.

A four year wet cycle that started in 1993 came to a head in 1996-1997.

“We knew we were sitting on a sponge that was totally saturated and we understood we were headed for trouble,” said Ewens.

The weather service gave a flood forecast range which came out of the North Central River Forecast Center in Chanhassen, and still does to this day.

“Some of the folks who were forecasters at that time had roots in this local area so they knew the Red very well and they understood that we were facing a flood of epic proportions.”

Ewens says it comes down to messaging and timing.

“The desire to have a value that people can then buy flood insurance against, make preparations if they are outside the developed flood mitigation that’s basically what happened in ’97, the 49 foot number became the number to go to.”

After the weather service issued a Flash Flood Warning, Ewens had to rush to get his family out of their house and to safety in nearby Thompson and he worked nonstop.

“We knew that we were facing a devastating event, but by this point it was out of our hands. So it was now going from preparation and mitigation to evacuation and safety of the public.”

The next day came the historic scene out of downtown Grand Forks when 11 buildings, including The Herald, and numerous apartments burned to the ground.

Ewens was one of the lucky ones and only lost the items in his basement at his home.

“Although there was yes some bad press that occurred during that time, I think the majority of people looked and saw ‘Hey, I know you work at the Weather Service, you’re suffering just as much as we are.”

During President Clintons visit in April 1997, then Mayor Pat Owens of Grand Forks told him: “The next time you come, you will see a city back thriving. So thank you.”

Ewens family returned in July that summer and the Grand Cities have come back in a big way over the years.

“It is doing quite well in it’s own right. There is the slow but steady growth kind of mentality that exists here.”

Ewens says the science behind forecasting and flood outlooks will continue to change and continue to come down to the messaging.

“It’s a process of being able to get people to understand what exactly is your risk and what is your responsibility. I think sometimes that’s a challenge that many entities face not just the weather service but everyone in the emergency management community. It’s that balance between what can i do to help you but what must you do to help yourself.”

More than 50,000 people were evacuated during the flood which caused well over $3.5 billion dollars in damage to the region.

President Clinton signed a bill to cover $500 million dollars in disaster relief that June.

Categories: Local News, North Dakota News