Spring has a certain smell in the Red River Valley. It’s the earthy fragrance that is created when the melting snows of the bitter winter meet the prairie’s rich, black loam, signaling the rebirth of the land. Kris Compton, a banker with Alerus Financial in Grand Forks, North Dakota and a devoted gardener, always loved that smell. It lifted her spirits, augured the end of the region’s annual hibernation, and promised that the flat, barren plains would soon flower again. The scent means something quite different to Kris’s 18-year-old daughter, Meghan. “She says she hates that smell,” Compton says sadly. “It reminds her of the flood.”
The flood. It’s the marker against which all time is now measured in Grand Forks and in its little-sister city, East Grand Forks, across the river in Minnesota. Five years after April 18, 1997, that terrible day when the river rose up and swallowed both communities, people are still struggling to rebuild. The progress has been remarkable. There are restaurants and shops where there was once nothing but a five-mile-wide swath of muddy water. There are offices and boutiques where a fire once raged, gutting downtown Grand Forks. There are expansive plans and earnest committees, as well as political casualties, stalled construction, and a lot of people who still feel the effects of the flood weighing heavy on their bank accounts and hopes for the future.
But despite the enormous pain of the past five years, the one sentiment that you hear over and over from the region’s stoic residents is this: We’re so lucky. Not many people have a chance to build something so significant in their lives.
Lynn Stauss, mayor of East Grand Forks, remembers the horror of the day that changed his life forever. “The entire community was covered with water,” he says. “Every business in town was flooded. Only a few houses were spared.”
More than 58,000 people from the two cities fled with just their children, their pets, and the clothes on their backs. It was the largest evacuation of an American city in that century. Many had to be rescued by boat as sirens wailed and helicopters circled overhead.
On the Grand Forks side, things became even worse as the flood triggered a fire that destroyed much of the downtown area. The image of the charred hulk of the National Security Building is eerily prescient of what the remains of the World Trade Center would look like five years later. Total losses were pegged at more than $1 billion.
Each family had personal crises to contend with, but city leaders, many struggling with their own losses, had even more-urgent questions before them: How do you rebuild two cities, in two different states, when there are so many competing priorities — housing, water, power, schools, businesses, communications — and find funding to support them all? Or do you simply shutter what’s left of the city and move on?
“We were having a near-death experience,” remembers Mike Maidenberg, publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and a member of the former Grand Forks Downtown Development Committee. “After the flood and the fire, we could have gone into a death spiral where people would have felt that it was too hard to rebuild. There was the realization that it was now or never. If we were going to get together as a community, we had to act.”
As the larger of the two cities, Grand Forks got most of the national media’s attention. The haunting image of the fire-ravaged downtown; the scope of the devastation; the valiant story of its newspaper — which never missed a day of publication; and the down-home appeal of the city’s mayor at the time, Pat Owens, a 57-year-old grandmother, made it an irresistible story. But on the other side of the river in East Grand Forks, Stauss and his team of city leaders were facing huge devastation as well. The entire town of 9,000 people had been evacuated, and only 7 of the town’s 3,500 houses were spared flood damage. The commercial district was wiped out. City hall was underwater. “We joked that East Grand Forks stood for ‘Everything Got Flooded,’ ” Stauss says.
Stauss, attired for weeks in a ratty sweatshirt emblazoned with “USA” — the only thing that he had managed to salvage when the waters swamped his house — became the group’s spokesman and the voice of hope for his beleaguered city. “My main job as mayor was to be a cheerleader,” says Stauss, a genial former fourth-grade teacher. “Just like Rudy Giuliani was for New York. It would have been easy for people to say, ‘Let’s just get out of here.’ But you have to show people that there’s hope, and then come through with something.”
Officials in both cities knew that they had to act fast — not only because it was critical to restore order to a city whose residents were all homeless, but also because natural disasters have a predictable emotional arc whose effects can best be mitigated by speed.
Relief workers will tell you that disasters typically follow four stages, similar to those that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified in the grieving process. First, there’s a “heroic phase,” where people rally to save their town. Then comes a short-lived “honeymoon phase,” where citizens are elated simply to have survived. Then, invariably, a “disillusionment phase” sets in, when survivors have to grapple with the long, frustrating process of rebuilding before finally moving on to the “reconstruction phase.”
The disillusionment phase is the most dangerous. “All this energy gets released as you try to recover,” says Maidenberg, “but that energy isn’t infinite. As it begins to ebb, the routine of life comes back, and politics come back. When that curtain comes down, what you have built in that precious time is what gives you the base for going forward.”
Within weeks of the flood, residents of East Grand Forks began returning to town, housed in FEMA trailers, and officials began planning for life in a dramatically altered landscape. Central to that plan was an emotional question: Should we embrace the river or abandon it? “The river had been our friend for all these years,” says Steve Gander, an optometrist and former president of the town’s planning-and-zoning commission. “It had been like an old dog, sleeping comfortably at our feet, and then one day it jumped up and bit us. We had to decide: Do we put it to sleep or try to make amends?”
The group unanimously decided to make peace with the river and to preserve it as the centerpiece of their revitalization plan. But they knew that it would be impossible to lure people back without guaranteeing protection against future natural disasters. It fell to Gary Sanders, a consulting engineer and project manager for flood recovery, to find a way to ensure that what the city planned to build would not fall victim to the river’s next rampage. The easiest solution would have been to build a high dike — the primary solution adopted by Grand Forks. But it would have cut off the view of the river from downtown.
Looking for other solutions, he turned to a Massachusetts-based company, Flood Control America LLC, which licensed a product called an Invisible Flood Control Wall. It had been developed in Cologne, Germany to protect the area around the city’s famous cathedral from periodic flooding by the Rhine. Essentially a post-and-plank structure, the wall can be assembled to keep out floodwaters, then deconstructed and put back in the shed when the waters recede. “When I first brought up the idea, the Corps of Engineers laughed hysterically,” Sanders says. Sanders persevered, however, and now the infrastructure for a 1,000-foot wall, protecting downtown, supplements the two concrete and earthen-ring dikes that guard the rest of the city.
With access to the river as the city’s guiding principle, municipal leaders needed a new vision for the downtown area. The group’s consensus was that the new and improved East Grand Forks should be a destination — a place where families would come for shopping, camping, dining, and exploring along the river. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do we have to build and what amenities do we have to offer to get people to come here?’ ” says Val Gravseth, the mayor’s assistant.
For inspiration, they turned to the city’s history, back to Prohibition, when the Minnesota side of the river was Sin City — offering the most fun you could have west of Chicago. City planners envisioned a more family-friendly version of the Roaring Twenties town, with an emphasis on fine dining over honky-tonk and shopping over gambling joints. They lobbied the state legislature for four additional liquor licenses and began mapping plans for a Restaurant Row facing the river. The city’s historic saloon, Whitey’s, would be the centerpiece. Built in 1925, Whitey’s had been damaged beyond repair by the flood. But the bar’s owner, Greg Stennes, had salvaged its stainless-steel horseshoe bar — the famous Wonderbar — and pledged to rebuild the art-deco landmark in the new location. Similarly, the popular Blue Moose restaurant, beloved by locals for attractions like Walleye Wednesdays, agreed to move its flooded building to the Row.
To attract more visitors to downtown, East Grand Forks officials lured Cabela’s, the famous outdoor outfitter, to town with $7 million in incentives. And they commissioned a city hall worthy of the “grand” in East Grand Forks. Stauss, a man who could never be accused of thinking small, had a vision of the building that would rise from a bleak little stretch of DeMers Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. “The architect asked, ‘What kind of building do you want?’ I said, ‘You know Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello? Something like that,’ ” he says.
Stauss got what he wanted: a stunning structure with a domed rotunda, sweeping staircases, pillars, and arches. So glorious is the edifice that it has been nicknamed the Taj Ma-City Hall. Stauss concedes that the building is a little, well, majestic for a town of only about 7,000. But he defends it as an aspirational symbol to the whole city. “We wanted to build something significant that would be a reminder of the flood but that would also show that the community is on the move,” he says. And, indeed, there are symbols aplenty: The building is 97 feet tall — to commemorate the year of the flood. The rotunda inside is 54 feet high — to mark the height of the water. There are two wings to symbolize the two cities, and there are three steps for the three branches of government that helped the town rebuild.
From his corner office in the west wing, Stauss looks out over the new library, the massive Cabela’s store, and the edge of bustling Restaurant Row to the river. Then he says what all of the people in this region say: “We’re the luckiest city in the world. So few people get an opportunity to do something this significant in their lives. I’m proud of how it turned out.”
Linda Tischler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer.