Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Grand Forks Flood Victims

July 7, 1997

I recently saw the flood devastation in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. It was beyond comprehension. I met with flood victims who shared their stories of the flood. I've tied to be faithful in recounting their experience.

Grand Forks, East Grand Forks, our heart bleeds for you. We now know that more than 1200 of your homes are uninhabitable due to the ravages of the flood. Your downtown is an empty shell - like a scene from a deserted war zone.

When ninety percent of your 60,000 citizens were plunged into temporary homelessness, you became helpless spectators orbiting your homes from 50 states and Canada. You had to painfully wait to see what flood swollen waters did to your homes, your livelihood, your friends, your dreams, and your memories.

You, your friends and associates were swept away to unknown fates a few quick steps ahead of the flood. Relationships ended with suddenness. There were no farewells, no goodbye's, no closure with school friends, graduations, or proms. Some of these people will never return.

Strangers ask, "Why did this happen? Why weren't you more prepared?" As a victim, you have asked the same questions. Strangers, don't be quick to judge. This was a surprise to most people - a true disaster with little warning.

The professionals who were supposed to know had no idea how big the flood would be. You had no idea how extensive the flooding would be. You were busy sandbagging other neighborhoods. Many of you couldn't get back to their own homes. Those who did were exhausted from days of sandbagging and helping others.

You offered your home to the less fortunate, not knowing that your own home would also be in the flood's path. Like dominos, neighborhood after neighborhood was affected. Nobody knew how bad this would be. Voluntary evacuations became mandatory evacuations. You had too little time to protect much of anything.

You have experienced the kindness of strangers and have eaten at the table of angels. If you had a need, someone gave it to you. "Here, this is yours." No questions asked. Shelters. Red Cross trucks with meals. Farm homes filled with strangers. Instant camaraderie born from common travail.

You hungered for information. You hoped to see TV footage of something familiar. You had a major need to see your house after the disaster, the media was great - a godsend.

Your orbit now moves in closer. Finally you can see what the flood did to your home, neighborhood, workplace and community. Your lives have been changed, scarred, ripped apart. Ever so slowly, life is coming back together.

Each new day presents its challenges. You have ridden the waves of the aftermath and the love that surrounded you. Now the reality of your losses sets in. Businesses were destroyed. Jobs were lost. Homes were lost.

Some lost homes and jobs. Most homes need major repairs and cleanup. Businesses may or may not be open.

Communal battles have been transformed to private wars. Your lives are filled with cement-like mud,

smells of rotting food in refrigerators and freezers, smells of fuel oil and sewer backups. You sort through prized possessions turned to worthless dross and begin seemingly endless cleaning. When in doubt, throw it out.

You have no time for helping a neighbor. You have your own work to do. Volunteers from great distances have come to shovel, haul and clean. These hands help other hands move with hope.

Many of you are camped in trailers next to your homes. This type of camping is no fun - no running water, no hot water, no water heaters, no furnaces, no electricity. You have to fight for the basics. The sound of a flush is like music.

You have the urge to fix things, to bring back a normal life, to make things as they were. At least you have focus. Many of your fellow victims have to await decisions about diking and diversion before they can resume their lives. Living in limbo is worse. Fall is coming. Rebuild or freeze. A quick decision, good, bad or indifferent, will get people into recovery. People can adjust to a decision, but not to indecision.

Anger is an inch away from the surface. You are confronted with bureaucracy, lines and tedious paperwork. The rules are interpreted and applied unevenly from neighbor to neighbor. Criteria changes. You have a new language to learn - the language of cleanup, repairs, permits, disaster forms, contractors and suppliers. It is frustrating.

Cable and utility bills roll in for dubious services. The gougers - sadly, mostly locals - are out there in force. Greed begins to eclipse community goodwill.

FEMA has been great - well, mostly great. Politicians, rescue workers, governmental officials - Grand Forks has a message for you for future disaster work. Don't make promises you can't keep! These folks are from a part of the country where they keep their word and expect others to do likewise. The failed promises and the changing rules hurt almost more than the flood itself. One more word, don't play politics with disaster aid. Playing politics while people are suffering adds to their suffering.

Dry Grand Forks, neighboring communities, open-hearted citizens - don't feel guilty for escaping harm's way. You were magnificent! How people came to each other's aid touched hearts and lives. Your overwhelming support calmed raging waters. More than the government, your help was worth millions and billions of dollars. Your generosity stands out among the stories the flood victims shared.