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1997 Red River flood in the United States facts for kids

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1997 Red River flood
The Sorlie Bridge connecting Grand Forks and East Grand Forks became submerged on April 17
The Sorlie Bridge connecting Grand Forks and East Grand Forks became submerged on April 17
How long: April 1997
Deaths: 0
Damages: $3.5 billion
Areas affected: Fargo, ND
Moorhead, MN
Greater Grand Forks
-Grand Forks, ND
-East Grand Forks, MN

The Red River flood of 1997 in the United States was a major flood that occurred in April 1997, along the Red River of the North in North Dakota and Minnesota. The flood reached throughout the Red River Valley, affecting the cities of Fargo and Winnipeg, while Grand Forks and East Grand Forks received the most damage, where floodwaters reached over 3 miles (5 km) inland, inundating virtually everything in the twin communities. Total damages for the Red River region were US$3.5 billion.

The flood was the result of abundant snowfall and extreme temperatures. Although river levels in Fargo reached record heights, the city was protected by several dikes and received minimal damage. In Grand Forks, however, the river crested at 54 feet (16 m), surpassing the 49-foot (15 m) estimate of flooding set by the National Weather Service. Within East Grand Forks, all but eight homes were damaged by floodwaters. Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens had to order the evacuation of over 50,000 people as a large portion of the city would eventually be flooded. A large fire started in Grand Forks, engulfing eleven buildings and sixty apartment units before being extinguished.

Those affected by the flood received donations from across the nation, along with billions in federal aid. City officials and flood-forecasters were criticized for the difference in estimates and actual flood levels. Fargo, Grand Forks, and East Grand Forks built new dikes to prevent damage from future floods and the Greater Grand Forks area began to rebuild around the river, developing a campground recreation area, park, and shopping districts where homes once stood.

Red River and prior floods

The Red River forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. A few sets of "sister cities" sit directly on this border, including Grand Forks, North Dakota and its counterpart East Grand Forks, Minnesota, Fargo, North Dakota/Moorhead, Minnesota (Fargo-Moorhead), and Wahpeton, North Dakota/Breckenridge, Minnesota. The Red River in Manitoba and the U.S. states of Minnesota and North Dakota has flooded repeatedly through the centuries, endangering lives and property. The river is highly prone to flooding because of its northward flow. As spring approaches, the snow is melted from south to north alongside the river flow. There is also the possibility that the surplus water can hit unmelted ice on the river and back up. The flatness of the terrain and small slope of the river is a significant factor.

The first known recorded accounts of floods along the Red River appeared in the 1770s. Severe floods occurred throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with one of the most recent major floods occurring in 1979. Homes not damaged in that flood were incorrectly assumed to be safe from a future flood.


A snow bank in south Grand Forks with a mailbox showing halfway up the bank. Taken in March 1997

There were five main factors that contributed to the flood's severity:

  • Rainstorms in autumn of 1996 had saturated the ground so that it could not absorb much water.
  • There was abundant snowfall during the 1996–1997 winter. A total of 98.6 inches (250 cm) of seasonal snow accumulations in Fargo and 117 inches (297 cm) downstream in Grand Forks along with other record snowfall events covered the Red River of the North's watershed.
  • Abnormally cold temperatures plagued the Upper Midwest during this particular winter. Between November 7, 1996, and March 18, 1997 (a span of 131 days) the air temperature only reached 40 degrees Fahrenheit 3 times in Grand Forks. Because there were only a few days above freezing, there was very little gradual melting of the snow that fell throughout the winter. Starting on March 19, 1997, the temperature then rose above freezing for 27 consecutive days, and only eight days after that would the temperature remain below freezing. However, due to the sudden warmth in April, it melted the deep snowpack too quickly for the river to handle.
  • A freak blizzard (unofficially named "Hannah" by the Grand Forks Herald) had dumped a large amount of freezing rain and snow on the Red River Valley on the weekend of April 5, 1997.
  • Tributary peak flows tended to coincide with those on the Red River itself.


The 1997 Red River flood caused over $815,036,000 in damages. The first flood outlook was issued on February 13, 1997, by the National Weather Service, declaring that there was "...a high spring snowmelt flood potential for the tributaries to the Red River, and a severe spring snowmelt potential for the Red River from Wahpeton, North Dakota, to the Canadian border." On February 27, a flood planning meeting in Fargo revealed that Fargo, Wahpeton, and Grand Forks would see the Red River rise to 38, 17.9, and 49 feet (15 m), respectively. The Corps of Engineers recommended on March 24 that Grand Forks' engineers build dikes to a height of 52 feet (16 m), which would provide three feet of leeway for the 49-foot (15 m) estimate. Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) publicly encouraged Grand Forks residents to purchase flood insurance, but only a thousand of the 52,000 residents did so. Later, researchers at the University of North Dakota determined that although more than 90% of residents knew about the option of purchasing flood insurance, only a small percentage purchased it since they believed the National Weather Service had projected that the river would not crest high enough to warrant a flood.

Grand Forks flood 1997
Volunteers in Grand Forks pile sandbags on April 17

On March 31, the North Dakota National Guard used helicopters to dump sand on ice covering the Red River in an attempt to use the sun's thermal energy to thaw the ice and prevent ice jams. The "dusting" was the most extensive attempt in North Dakota's history. Starting on April 3 and continuing every day up to the flood, sandbagging and dike-building began. Residents, local university students, and Grand Forks Air Force base personnel placed about 3.5 million sandbags at various points around the river.

On April 16, at a public meeting, Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens recommended that residents voluntarily evacuate the city. The next day, about 500 airmen and women from Grand Forks Air Force Base were assigned to assisting with monitoring the dikes around the river.

The flood hits

The flood in Fargo

Volunteers in Fargo reinforcing a flood wall to protect nearby homes

The Red River crested in Fargo at 39.5 feet (12.0 m) on April 17, but dike-building efforts were able to prevent the water from flooding into a majority of the city. An emergency dike was built and volunteers had to add sandbags to increase the height of a dike that had settled. The mayor of Fargo at the time, Bruce Furness, later stated: "We came very, very close to losing parts of 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."

The flood in Greater Grand Forks

Aerial view of flooding in Grand Forks

There was some sense of imminent threat in Grand Forks, but the cities could not prepare for such an enormous flood. The National Weather Service (NWS) had a long-standing forecast for the river to crest at 49 feet (14.9 m), which was the river's highest level during the 1979 flood. The cities had been able to get their dikes to this level, but the river continued to rise past it, to the astonishment of the NWS (which did not upgrade its forecast until April 16, the day the river actually reached 49 feet). The dikes in the low-lying Lincoln Drive neighborhood of Grand Forks were the first to break, doing so early on April 18. Other dikes over the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks area would fail that day and the next, flooding thousands of homes.

A residential neighborhood in East Grand Forks flooded in late April 1997

Water would end up reaching areas over two miles (3 km) away from the Red River, necessitating the evacuation of all of East Grand Forks and 75% of Grand Forks. School was canceled in both cities for the remainder of the term, as were classes at the University of North Dakota. The river crested at 54.35 feet (16.6 m) on April 21 and the river level would not fall below 49 feet (14.9 m) until April 26. The flood reached higher levels than the prior most severe flood in 1826. Because water drained so slowly out of the most low-lying areas, some homeowners could not visit their damaged property until May. By May 30, the Red River had receded below flood stages everywhere in North Dakota.


When the dikes in Grand Forks could not keep out the flooding river, Pat Owens ordered the evacuation of over 50,000 people on April 18, which up to that time, had been the largest civilian evacuation in the United States since the evacuation of residents in Atlanta, Georgia, during the Civil War. She later reflected on the decision saying, "...if I evacuate this city and nothing happens they're gonna impeach me. But if I don't, we're going to lose lives." Because all transportation was cut off between the two cities (and for many miles, the two states), East Grand Forks residents were evacuated to nearby Crookston, namely to the University of Minnesota Crookston, while residents of Grand Forks, who were given mandatory evacuation orders on April 18, went to Grand Forks Air Force Base (residents stayed in airplane hangars containing more than 3,000 cots).

With the assistance of the National Guard and Air Force personnel, several hundred patients were evacuated from local hospitals with no injuries or loss of life during the evacuation process. Many residents also evacuated to motels and homes in neighboring communities. Some residents of Grand Forks criticized the National Weather Service for its incorrect prediction of the river level, as it had prevented them from securing their possessions from their homes. One resident said: "If they'd said earlier the river would hit 52 feet (16 m), I would have moved my stuff out of my house. At 49, it was safe."

Downtown Grand Forks fire

A before and after view of a building that caught fire on April 19. The above image is taken a few weeks after the fire, while the second image is a year later.

The flood made national news. The most familiar footage is possibly of the fire that started on April 19 in downtown Grand Forks, surrounded by floodwaters, where eleven buildings and sixty apartments were destroyed. The Grand Forks Herald building was totally destroyed in the fire, along with 120 years of archives. Firefighters were not able to begin extinguishing the fire immediately as they had to evacuate nearly forty people in one of the nearby apartment complexes who had defied the evacuation order. Additionally, their tankers were unable to reach the buildings due to the height of the floodwater and the water pressure from the hoses and fire hydrants was too weak to extinguish the flames. The National Guard placed the fire trucks on several tractor-trailers to prevent them from flooding, which allowed the firefighters to assist in extinguishing the fire. Also, two aircraft rescue and firefighting trucks from the Grand Forks International Airport were brought in to fight the fire because their engines were higher up off the ground, and thus did not get clogged by the flood waters. The firefighters received assistance several hours after the fire started by a fire-bombing plane that dropped retardant and helicopters who made sixty drops totaling 120,000 gallons of water. Three of the firefighters were treated for hypothermia after treading through the cold temperatures of the flood water. The fire was later determined to have been caused by an electrical problem that had resulted from the large amounts of floodwater.

Donations and damages

An American Red Cross volunteer distributes food to Grand Forks victims in late April 1997

The national attention of both flood and fire reached Joan Kroc, the McDonald's heiress, who anonymously (her anonymity was later revealed to the public by the Grand Forks Herald) donated $15,000,000 to be divided into $2,000 portions for each damaged household (though the amount some homeowners received was less due to the huge number of devastated homes; in all 7,500 households received funds). Additionally, another single anonymous donor gave $5 million which was distributed in $1,000 allotments. In November 1997, North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer reported that victims had been assisted by 50,000 relief agency volunteers who had served more than 2 million meals. Additionally, the communities received clothing and supplies that were donated from every U.S. state. During a concert in Fargo, the rock group KISS donated the money from sales of a special T-shirt to the Fargo and Grand Forks areas to assist in flood relief.

Flood sculpture
A memorial statue in Grand Forks with the rebuilt Grand Forks Herald building in the background

All told, there was $3.5 billion USD in damages to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, making it the eighth most expensive natural disaster in the U.S. since 1903. Across North Dakota and Minnesota, there were 4,500,000 acres (18,000 km2) of land covered in water. Thousands of people were relocated after the disaster. In May 1997, the Red Cross conducted a damage assessment of 8,000 North Dakota homes. The report indicated that 519 homes, 53 mobile homes, and 73 apartments had been destroyed by flood waters while 701 homes, 69 mobile homes, and 175 apartments sustained major damage. Inspectors reported that 5,959 homes, 166 mobile homes, and 497 apartments received minor damage. Over 5,200 businesses had been destroyed, damaged, or somehow affected by the winter and spring blizzards and the flood. In Grand Forks alone, 75% of the homes, 315 businesses, and 16 of 22 local schools had been flooded. East Grand Forks had over 500 condemned homes, with only eight homes not damaged by the flood. Grand Forks, losing only 3% of its population from 1997 to 2000, did not fare as badly as its sister city, which lost nearly 17% of its residents. Not a single person was killed in the flood itself.

Future flood prevention

Grand Forks Floodwall
Floodwall north of downtown Grand Forks

The National Weather Service has since revised their method of forecasting spring floods. Increased technology and funding has allowed for the mapping of the entire Red River bottom, more flood monitoring gauges, and up-to-date satellite images of the river at various flood stages.

The area continues to experience flooding as another major flood occurred April 2006. However, the Red River did not go near the level of the 1997 flood and only caused minor damage, primarily in rural areas, including water over roads and bridges. The lack of damage done to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks in particular can largely be attributed to the aforementioned improved dikes and Greenway zone.

New dikes have been constructed in Fargo, Grand Forks, and East Grand Forks. Fargo initially had three different plans to choose for developing a dike, and construction of the dike was funded with $10.5 million it received from FEMA and $5.5 million from state funds. For Greater Grand Forks, the system of levees and new "invisible floodwalls" was completed in 2007, having cost several hundred million USD. The areas bordering both sides of the rivers has been converted into a giant park called the Greater Grand Forks Greenway.

Since the flood, Grand Forks' recovery has been used as a model by other communities which have suffered from natural disasters. After Hurricane Katrina hit several U.S. states in 2005, Grand Forks adopted the city of Biloxi, Mississippi. Current Grand Forks mayor Michael Brown stated that it was important "to utilize the experience from those people who went through those disasters, like our fire chief, police chief and public works directors. So we went to Biloxi and said, 'This is what we have learned.'" Grand Forks leaders met with Biloxi city officials, and sent a list of contacts and a 24-page booklet that detailed how to coordinate volunteer agencies and how to interact with FEMA. One Biloxi city official stated that Grand Forks had "just helped us to understand what we were looking at, and gave us some direction to go in, which was really needed, with the rebuilding and the recovering."

By 2007, the population of Grand Forks had resumed the same levels as before the flood. East Grand Forks mayor Lynn Stauss stated "We like to call ourselves the poster child of flood recovery because we think we showed how different governments working together could make it happen."

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