Mike Jacobs: Remembering the heroes of Flood of '97
There was a sense of chaos that week – but that seems long, long ago.
This was Flood Week in our towns 25 years ago.
Today’s date, April 13, was a Sunday in 1997. Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were poised between a brutal early April blizzard – Blizzard Hannah – and a rising river. Less than a week later, on Thursday, April 17, the Red River passed 50 feet, an historic high water mark. On Monday, April 21, the river crested above 54 feet, the highest flood crest ever recorded in Grand Forks – and one that flooded almost all structures in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.
There was a sense of chaos that week – but that seems long, long ago. The water went down. We cleaned up our houses and we went on with our lives.
Yet, the story is bigger than that.
I am not one to wallow in flood stories. Instead, let me emphasize the extraordinary resolve among people to rebuild and to make Grand Forks and East Grand Forks better.
And we did.
This renaissance is the story that we should concentrate on 25 years after The Catastrophic Flood of 1997. This is the time to celebrate our extraordinary achievement. Grand Forks and East Grand Forks arose.
Seriously, today's cities rose again from the mud.
It could have been much different.
Every citizen had a part in this remarkable achievement, and any list that anyone attempted would inevitably leave somebody off. At the same time, every list would include some outstanding leaders.
Let’s start with Pat Owens, the mayor of Grand Forks at the time of the flood. Her commitment to Grand Forks was obvious and her personal pain was palpable.
Owens didn’t survive the post-flood elections, however, partly because the Herald had tired of the multi-tiered bureaucratic approach to recovery that she had initiated. Instead Mike Brown was elected mayor in the post-flood election. He served for two decades, and those years of stability helped Grand Forks regain its footing and begin expanding.
Brown and Owens might be thought of as victims in common. Owens’ ponderous and bureaucratic approach alienated voters, and they – we – voted her out. The Herald’s editorial endorsement at the time lamented the layers of government Mayor Owens had imposed and urged voters to give Brown a chance. The same criticism was raised against Mayor Brown in the 2020 election, when Brandon Bochenski was elected, bringing a new energy to City Hall – though not without controversy.
But Bochenski’s election triumph has little to do with the Flood of ‘97. Instead his victory suggests that Grand Forks is ready to forget about the flood – after 25 years.
The truth, I think, is that both Owens and Brown are heroes of the flood recovery in Grand Forks, and we should honor them.
There are many other heroes, of course, including heroes such as Hal Gershman and Mike Maidenberg. Maidenberg was publisher of the Herald. His level-headed, future-oriented thinking helped our towns to move beyond disaster to recovery (beyond helping the Herald to publish every day during the flood crisis!) I talked to Maidneberg a few days ago – and I thanked him for the Red River Greenway, one of the first post-flood initiatives. Gershman is a business leader who has commanded wide respect in Grand Forks.
Maidenberg has since moved to California to be close to his children. Gershman remains active in Grand Forks affairs – and in his business, now an employee-owned company, Happy Harry’s liquor stores.
Still another flood hero, in the pantheon that I have imagined, is Ken Vein, now a City Council member but at the time of the flood the city engineer. His decisions, some made at the razor’s edge, helped save the city. His sense of humor buoyed many of us – myself included, perhaps myself especially – during flood times.
Of course there are so many more, both at flood time and after the water went down.
I remember especially a woman from New Jersey who appeared on our street in the Riverside neighborhood. My buddy Eric Kudelka and I had just wrestled a freezer out of the basement of our house on Conklin Avenue in the Riverside neighborhood when the Red Cross truck came by.
A woman inside offered coffee and in that instant I saw the face of God. She had never been west of Philadelphia, she told me, but here she was offering coffee at curbside in a remote neighborhood in a far-away city.
Of course, there are many other stories I should tell.
These stories I tell because they emphasize the importance of human contact. There is something that binds us together as human beings, that helps us help each other in times of crisis, and something that gives us the energy, the determination, and the vision to get beyond the disaster that confronts us and to build a future together.
That is what we learned this week, Flood Week, in 1997.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.