Presidential visit gives refugees a brief diversion from disaster
By Gerry Gilmour
The Forum

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. – De Sean Goulet watched his mother straighten the area around their cots Tuesday morning and wondered what all the fuss was about.

"The president’s coming," Billie Jo Goulet told her 6-year-old son.

"Bill Clinton’s going to be here?" the Grand Forks Winship Elementary School kindergartner asked excitedly.

He’s been in the shelter in base Hanger 3, with mom and sister Brianna, 2, since devastating flooding wiped out most of Grand Forks, N.D., and neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn., over the weekend.

Nearly 60,000 people were displaced from their homes. Both cities are without sewer and water service and officials say it will be weeks until people can return to their homes.

Air Force One touched down at 11:23 a.m. on the base’s main runway, about 20 minutes ahead of a Northwest Airlines plane carrying the White House press corps.

Clinton, using a cane, walked stiffly down the steps, his damaged right leg held straight by a cast, and then greeted a line of 40 selected civilian and military dignitaries. He paused and leaned down to hug Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens.

Marine Corps One and Two – two glistening green and white helicopters flown into the base earlier aboard a C-5 military transport – and two giant twin-prop Chinook choppers took Clinton, the North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota congressional delegations and a pool of reporters on a flight over the cities to provide a view of the devastation.

The aerial tour was followed by a briefing with local officials and an address to the citizens of Grand Forks in the hanger where the Goulet family is staying.

DeSean was playing Monopoly with other children when Clinton arrived at the hanger late Tuesday afternoon. More than 1,000 people are still living in the hanger’s crowded quarters.

Billie Jo Goulet said a base family has invited them into their home so the children can bathe at night.

Tanya O’Keefe wanted 3-year-old Adam to get a glimpse of the president, and stood near the roped off area at the front of the hanger holding 1-year-old twins Joshua and Kendra.

Their home isn’t flooded, and they aren’t in a mandatory evacuation area, but they came to the shelter Tuesday after they heard water would be off for weeks.

"We were trying to hold out until we could go with family or friends," she said.

Sherrie Pulley, a Grand Forks hairdresser and single mother, has been staying with friends on the base along with children Thomas, 14, Candice, 12, and twins Jacob and Jared, 7.

They prefer to spend the day at the shelter.

"We come here to be among friends," she said. "I think my house is still dry, so I’m lucky. These people have lost so much."

She said her father and sister are among those who lost everything. Pulley told Jared to stop jumping on the cot and to pay attention to the president.

"I hope he’s willing to give support for everyone who has lost so much," Pulley said. "I hope he stands behind Mayor Owens and gives us the aid we need so we can rebuild. Give us back our city."

Many stood on military cots and strained for a view of the president. Some simply went about their business. One older man sat on his cot with the newspaper, interrupting his reading only briefly to listen to the commander in chief.

Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hess, base commander, thanked base personnel for opening their homes and hearts and showing they are truly part of the Grand Forks community.

The base is working with the North Dakota Army National Guard’s 136th Quartermaster Battalion on plans to produce safe water for the base and enough water and pressure to eventually backwash and clean the crippled Grand Forks water system, according to North Dakota Guard Adjutant Gen. Keith Bjerke.

"There is a big difference between devastation and defeat," Hess said.

Clinton spoke for about 10 minutes, repeating his promise of aid to cities and states and then staying for about 15 minutes to shake hands with evacuated flood victims.

Secret Service agents were startled during his address when a light exploded in a fixture above the hanger.

"Well, we’ve had a blizzard, a flood and now this," he said, drawing laughter.

He reminded flood victims that the coming days will be difficult, that the tragedy will sink in when they see what they have lost.

The president said he was impressed by Mayor Owens’ message that a community is about people, not about buildings.

"You don’t have to be ashamed if you have a broken heart," Clinton said. "It might be hard to believe it today, but I believe you will rebuild stronger and better than ever."

As governor of Arkansas and president, he said, he’s witnessed the devastation of flooding, tornadoes and earthquakes, though never such a combination of nature’s forces as the Red River Valley has faced this spring.

He said the posting on the shelter’s bulletin board, offering free housing to families, demonstrates the community spirit needed to get through the crisis.

"Water cannot wash that away. Fire cannot burn that away. And blizzards cannot freeze that away," Clinton said. "If you don’t give it away, it will bring you back better than ever."