Flood victims come to relatives in Paynesville

This article submitted by Linda Stelling on 04/22/97.

With the flood waters rising in the Red River Valley of northwestern Minnesota, residents are being forced to evacuate their homes.

Many of the residents of Ada and Breckenridge are gradually starting to return to their homes as the flood waters recede. But for the residents of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, they won’t be able to return home for two weeks or longer, depending in which part of town you lived.

Jim and Shirley Hansen, Ada, spent a week living with their daughter and her family, Dr. Tim and Laurie Malling, Paynesville. The Hansens were evacuated on April 7 from their home in Ada. They stayed with friends the first night, then headed to Paynesville. They returned home April 17.

Mrs. Hanson described the flood devastation created in Ada to her daughter. Twenty-five homes had walls collapse and steel beams in the three-year-old community center buckled, ruining a library, swimming pool, weight room and more. Windows were broken all over town because of the force of the water.

“Army trucks were getting stuck in the streets,” Mrs. Malling said of her hometown. “The community has seen flooding before, but never like this.” In the 30 years her parents lived in Ada, this was the first time they’ve had to evacuate.

The nursing home residents were evacuated to Twin Valley, a community 15 miles away. Then they were evacuated to Halstad and Fertile because Twin Valley was threatened with flood waters. The nursing home and hospital have both been condemned as unsafe in Ada. The Ada Elementary School was the only facility left open in the town.

Jim and Barb Elseth, Paynesville, also have a few house guests as a result of the flood in Grand Forks and Hendrum. Barb’s mother, Margaret Jacobson from Hendrum, has been staying with them a week already and on Monday, Jim’s sister and her husband, Dan and Lois Gust, arrived from Grand Forks.

The family was also worried about Jim’s mother as she was a resident in a nursing home in Grand Forks that had been evacuated, but nobody seemed to know where she was moved on Friday. The family finally heard Monday afternoon she was safe in Blackduck.

“I feel like a refugee,” Lois Gust said. “Grand Forks is an awful mess. The whole town is shut down. We stayed home as long as possible. People were told that when they saw the water coming up their driveways, they were to evacuate as the water usually came fast.”

Lois said she was up at 4 a.m. Saturday watching to see where the water was. “I didn’t know if I should start packing a suitcase or not. I think I was still in denial. We live in an area where the ground is higher. In our 35 years in Grand Forks we never had to evacuate,” she added.

Her husband, Dan, couldn’t sleep either, so he was out roaming the streets trying to find how far away the flood waters were. By 7:30 a.m. the water was coming up into the streets from the storm drains. “By 8:30 a.m. we were preparing to leave home and by 9:33 a.m. Saturday, we were at a resort in Osage.

Lois said all nonessential businesses were shut down first so their employees could help fight the flood. Nursing homes were evacuated to the grade school then to the armory.

Dan said he has two sisters living in East Grand Forks. One has three to four feet of water on the main floor of her home and the other sister has water up to her ceiling.

“The fire on top of the flood was incomprehensible. The area has had one devastation after another this winter. First the bitter cold, then eight blizzards and now the flood of the century,” Dan said. “What next?”

“There is nothing a person can do. People can’t do any cleaning because there is no water pressure, all the businesses are closed, many people won’t have jobs to go back to,” Dan said. “Everything is so up in the air. A person can’t plan ahead because you don’t know when you will be allowed back into town.

“People were great, the flood was a bonding experience for the community, everybody put forth a great cooperative effort,” Dan said.

“The community did what they had to do even though many were burned out from sandbagging and fighting the flood, and they were frustrated they couldn’t do more. Then all of a sudden the fight was over, the river won the battle. We did all we could until we were ordered out of town,” he added.

Holli Whitcomb, a college sophomore attending UND in Grand Forks, arrived home Monday. “I guess I’m home for the summer as college is closed. We hope to be able to return and get our possessions,” she said. She left with only a three-day supply of clothes.

Many of the college classes had been cancelled earlier in the week so students could sandbag. Holli said she was already sandbagging three weeks ago at “Sandbag Central.”

“It was heartbreaking to see families walking down the flooded streets with their children, carrying only a garbage bag full of clothes. Everything else had to be left behind,” she said.

A shuttle bus took the students from the campus to the Grand Forks Civic Auditorium where they were then bused to where they were needed. “People needing sandbagging help radioed in to the emergency center and the buses took us everywhere,” Holli said.

For two days last week, the students sandbagged around a church, near the river, for five hours straight trying to save the building, but to no avail.

“At 10:30 p.m. Saturday, the volunteers were told to go home. When I left town at 1 a.m., the whole city was under a voluntary evacuation. We waited in the dorms, but that was hard as we kept hearing rumors that the dikes had broken. Some students were getting hysterical as they didn’t know if they should pack and leave or what,” she added. “One dorm room placed signs in their windows “Build the Ark.”

Holli described Grand Forks as a war zone. “With all the media and national guard helicopters flying over town, and civil defense siren always going off it made the town seem like a war zone. “It was scary because we didn’t know whose turn it was to evacuate when we heard the sirens,” she added.

“As we watch television reports of the flood, your stomach drops because you know the spots they are showing and you see the whole town drowning,” Holli said.

Jeremy Brown, a senior aviation students from Paynesville, has also helped at “Sandbag Central.” He said they have two machines there and with 200 volunteers, they could fill 5,400 sandbags per machine in an hour.
Two weeks ago, Jeremy helped friends sandbag their home south of town by the coulee. A week ago, they had to raise their dike higher but that wasn’t enough to stop the flood waters.

“After the 1979 flood, the city of Grand Forks build a diversion to take some of the water pressure off the coulee and Red River. The diversion takes the water six to eight miles west of town then back north,” Jeremy said. “The coulee and Red River merge north of town. This year, due to the flood waters, they merged south of town.”

Jeremy has a first floor apartment on campus, but thinks it will stay dry. However, he couldn’t say that about the ground level rooms, they will most likely be flooded.

Jeremy said he came home by way of Kansas. He had to fly out on Friday before the forced evacuation. “After hearing reports on the news, I realized I wouldn’t be able to return to Grand Forks so I flew to Paynesville instead,” he said.

Return to Archives