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Terry DeVine: Terrible flood tested Fargo's character
The Forum - 04/14/2002

Some natural disasters cause great loss of life. Others cause devastating property losses. Both crush the human spirit.

I've been personally involved in news coverage of two terrible floods. One killed 238 people in Rapid City, S.D., in June 1972. The other wreaked havoc in the Red River Valley 25 years later, in April 1997, destroying Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., and very nearly doing the same to Fargo and several other cities.

Twelve inches of rain in the higher Black Hills turned sleepy Rapid Creek into a runaway freight train. The torrent overtopped Canyon Lake Dam, then collapsed it. A wall of water swept away people asleep in their beds, who died by the dozens.

I can still smell the stench of death and vividly recall the row after row of bodies laid out on the floor of a makeshift morgue in a warehouse. A city of more than 30,000 had no public services for most of two weeks. It was like being back in Vietnam. Make no mistake, it was a war zone.

The 1997 flood in the Red River Valley didn't cause huge loss of life, but it destroyed billions of dollars worth of property. Few will ever forget the evacuation of 50,000 people in Grand Forks-East Grand.

I'll take the scenes of flooded, burning downtown Grand Forks to my grave, just as I'll never forget the night the dike blew out in Fargo's Terrace Park area, inundating Oak Grove Lutheran School and several homes.

Bruce Furness, in his first term as Fargo's mayor, will never forget it either. He remembers standing on 52nd Avenue South, watching overland floodwaters creep near the top of the road.

"I can remember standing out there watching the water," said Furness. I figured it would come across 52nd Avenue South and start flowing north along 25th Street South.

"We would have lost much of south Fargo if that had happened. It was then that the decision was made to build an emergency dike that, for the most part, ran along 40th Avenue South."

There were two other very critical situations, recalls Furness. The clay dike build along Second Street North just east of City Hall began leaking badly. Heavy equipment shored up the dike and it held.

The other critical moment came when the Red climbed to a record crest of 39.51 feet on April 17. The Fargo Fire Department discovered that a permanent dike built years ago north of St. John's Hospital had settled over time. The call was put out for volunteer sandbaggers, who saved the day.

"We came very, very close to losing parts of Fargo," said Furness. "It took a lot of effort by a lot of people -- a great many of them high school and college students -- to save the city. I was very proud of them. I think it was one of Fargo's finest moments."

Furness remembers the late Joe Dill, editor of The Forum at the time, asking him whether he should be worried.

"I told him I'd call him and tell him when he should start worrying," said Furness. "I called him about 3 a.m. one morning and told him, 'Joe, now you can start worrying.'"

The flood brought out the best in many people in the worst of circumstances.

Hard work and the leadership of people like Furness, City Operations Manager Dennis Walaker and City Engineer Mark Bittner, saved the day.

It was an event to remember.

Readers can reach Terry DeVine at

(701) 241-5515 or


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