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Positive lessons from 1997 flood

By Staff | Mar 27, 2009

Some might think that a flood would pull communities apart. After all, everyone has to switch their focus inward in an attempt to save their “stuff.” Plus, when it’s time to evacuate, people are scattered all over.

But a flood does just the opposite. I witnessed this first-hand while living in Grand Forks during the 1997 flood. A flood brings a community together.

Certainly there are very few things that one can count as blessings when it comes to the 1997 flood, but there are a couple. First of all, it’s remarkable that no one lost their life during such a terrible disaster. Part of that is the good, old common sense of the people, and the other part was the terrific response by authorities when it came to the mandatory evacuation and providing help to those who needed it.

The other bright spot about the 1997 flood was the way it united a community. It was a wonderful combination of the “We’re all in this together” attitude and the tendency to help your neighbor that is so common in most North Dakota folks.

I recall those days before the dike broke in Grand Forks. The weather was beautiful, but people weren’t out doing their normal spring activities like biking, walking, cleaning up their yards, or getting their gardens ready.

A few days before the evacuation and eventual flood of most of the city, a co-worker of mine approached our boss and asked if we could leave our jobs to go help with the sandbagging efforts. He agreed, and we met up with another friend and basically just walked around the city from neighborhood to neighborhood looking for sandbagging crews. It was amazing. We found long lines of sandbaggers trailing from the curb out front and snaking to the backyard. People were tossing sandbags back and forth in the effort to transport them to the area of the yard closest to the encroaching water.

My “crew” and I would approach a sandbagging relay line, and it would just open up. People would shift and make room for us. We didn’t even have to say a word, we just joined in like we belonged there all along. Maybe it was because tired arms were looking for some fresh ones to take over. The people behind those tired arms would then fade out of the line and rest or move on to another line somewhere else.

There were people of all ages. Most were strangers who, like us, just stopped by and started helping where they saw the need. We didn’t know the homeowners. This wasn’t our neighborhood. This wasn’t our home town.

We had no personal stake in saving this person’s home or belongings, we just joined in with the same attitude everyone else had – a sort of “shoe on the other foot” logic. If I were at risk of losing my house, I hope someone would pitch in to help me.

At some point in our lives, many of us have to depend on the kindness of strangers. Helping out with the flood of 1997 gave me a sense of confidence in that kindness. Seeing people come together with a common goal and wanting nothing in return for their efforts was remarkable.

I recall at one particular house the owner had cookies and brownies for all the volunteers who were busy sandbagging in her backyard. The elderly woman emerged from her kitchen every now and then with fresh-baked goodies for all of us. I imagine it was the only way she knew how to thank us.

Sure, no one wants to deal with a flood of any magnitude, whether it’s a little dampness in your basement or a total wipe-out like some homes in Grand Forks had to deal with, but there were so many lessons learned from the flood of 1997.

I recall listening to a call-in radio talk show after the flood, and countless people were calling in with questions on how to save their stuff that had taken on water. People were asking for advice on how to save photographs, for instance, or wash out clothing. People were simply trying to save something amid all their wet and damaged stuff.

But I think the most important thing people learned from the 1997 flood was not about washing the murky flood water out of their belongs, but more about the human spirit.

For the most part, “stuff” can be replaced. Over time a person can buy new clothes, replace ruined carpet and furniture. Sure, it’s costly, but when you experience something like the flood of 1997 you find out that material belongings are really immaterial.

The community coming together to help their neighbors was inspirational. The kindness of strangers has real value.

Mullally is a Tribune writer.

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