April 16, 2007

Personal Memories of a Natural Disaster

So it's been ten long years since that memorable event...my brother's tenth birthday party. No really, the last normal thing I remember doing before the Grand Forks flood of 1997 hit all of a sudden was going to Players (who else misses that place?) for dinner with my family for my brother Jared's birthday. He got new N64 controllers from my Grandma.

Fortunately my parents planned ahead so I missed out on all the craziness that marked the week of April 16, 1997 for everybody else my age. We didn't even go to school the day the sirens started going off, we were holed up at my Grandma's place already, so we weren't rushed out of school when the water started coming over/through the dikes. Most of our family's belongings were already stashed in my Grandma's garage and anywhere else we could find to fit stuff in her building.

My brother and I were sheltered from a lot of the chaos that ensued in the following days, not having to feel the panic of our neighborhood being evacuated. Others weren't so lucky, being rushed out of their homes and neighborhoods on little to no notice, suffering thousands and thousands of dollars in flood damage to their houses and losing nearly everything they had. Our family lucked into a hotel room in Mayville when we decided even Grandma's place might be in danger and the whole town was emptying out, again distancing ourselves from the citywide damage and fires that would soon crop up.

But every family's experience was different and is filled with different memories. Everybody suffered and recovered in different ways, just trying to live life as normally as they could given the situation, and the experience no doubt affected how all of us would grow up. I think this anniversary is sad, looking back on the buildings, neighborhoods and communities that were destroyed and the lives that it changed, but it's also a happy anniversary, seeing what Grand Forks has become in spite of all its hardships, and the ways that we as individuals grew after the flood.

To commemorate the big flood ten years ago, here are a few of my personal memories and the way they affected me (any fellow flood victims reading, feel free to share your own memories in the comments below if you'd like):

  • I remember walking from our hotel to a store in Mayville where I bought my first Star Wars novel. That started a long, slightly embarrassing phase, but I do not regret it.
  • I remember thinking the flood could be a good thing - I could go to a new school and start a new life, this time as a 'cool kid,' only to realize that no matter how hard I tried I would just be a weirdo nerd forever (um, hello, Star Wars books?).
  • I remember being a total jerk to Bernie when were in Mayville together. And don't worry, I apologized to him, like six years later.
  • I remember eating at the campus cafeteria at Mayville State University and getting excited to someday go to college myself and enjoy such a wonderful salad bar. (EVK on my campus does not compare, sadly)
  • I remember going back to our neighborhood once the waters had receded and seeing the Vidden's shed across the street from where it once was, and a picnic table stuck in a tree or on a powerline (something high up) by the Higganbotham's house.
  • I remember the Lincoln Dr. basin being virtually abandoned a month after the flood, enough so that no one cared when Jamie Fiala and I threw damaged junk out of his attic window onto the sidewalk below for absolutely no reason.
  • I remember meeting a network news crew (Dateline NBC) for the very first time in Mayville (Isn't it true that it's easier for things to get, like, implanted in your head during traumatizing events as a child? Maybe that experience, plus all the crazy awesome local journalism going on at the time, imprinted some future career goals in my head). Anyhow, I was quite upset when they didn't use anything about my family at all in the final package (in long retrospect I was an awful interview, all I wanted to talk about was how my cat ran away for hours the night we were trying to pack stuff).
  • I remember WDAZ showing video of the water coming over Washington from their little camera on the roof of their studio, and Pat Sweeney doing live reporting, not sports, and being awesome at it. I also remember WDAZ taking and sending messages all over the region so people would know their family members and friends were Ok, etc. One in particular I remember was the Askjem kids letting the Gilbertson girls know they were OK (or was it the other way around? Either way they were like 6 years old and it was adorable).
  • I remember not being big enough to help pile up sandbags, but being able to watch them pile up behind my house (sadly, to no avail).
  • (Not really the flood but just about) I remember my dad stealing our next-door-neighbor's space heater and grill and making us mac-n-cheese and coffee on the grill in the garage during Blizzard Hannah when there was no electricity.
  • I remember about a week before when my mom had my brother and I make lists of stuff we would want to save in case of emergency, in order of importance. Our crappy black-and-white Apple II was at the top of my list.
  • I remember a picture of rooftops poking out from the water that my neighborhood was submerged in and being able to pick out my house cause I could see the (fake) wishing well in our front yard.
  • I remember being able to find the spot where my house once was in what is now a city park judging by what remained of the curb and the tree that used to be in my backyard.
  • I remember coincidentally being at a football game at Notre Dame University the week one of its well-known benefactors, Joan Kroc, died. They held a moment of silence and I participated, remembering her for my own reasons.
Most communities have had their own tragedies, natural disasters and hardships, some not as bad as ours, many much worse. But what these experiences usually are able to do is remind us of the bonds of community. Even as Grand Forks and East Grand Forks emptied out and residents spread all across the region, the Grand Forks Herald still published every day, and other towns all up and down the Red River Valley were eager to help and shelter flood victims. And even though many families moved on to other places and new chapters in their lives, we're still a part of the community that shared this experience, together. This week we can look back on that landmark even of many of our childhoods, that shared experience, in fond remembrance of our community that once was, and appreciate the communities we've since joined and formed and how our town and our lives were undoubtedly changed.

Update: This is kind of awesome and I plan to be watching it as it updates throughout the week.

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