Northwest Minnesota Historical Center
Minnesota State University Moorhead

EBB TIDE: Recovery From the 1997
Flood in the Red River Valley

An Exhibit Prepared by Students at Minnesota State University Moorhead,
with the Assistance of the Northwest Minnesota Historical Center,
the Lake Agassiz Regional Library System
and the Minnesota Humanities Commission


Ada's Ordeal



Farms and the Flood

Flood Mitigation

Future Flood Prevention

Nora Lutheran Church

Oak Grove School

Personal Property Loss

Political Fallout


Rebuilding a Neighborhood

Refuse Removal

Restoring Power



In April 1997 the Red River of the North, which marks the border between North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, flooded. The rivers and creeks that fed the Red also overflowed their normal channels, and the result of this flooding was a disaster of historic proportions. The immediate effects of the flood in the Red River Valley were easy to see – communities evacuated, homes pushed off their foundations by rushing water, cars literally floating. After the flood waters receded, the signs of disrupted lives were also in evidence as people carried ruined possessions out of their homes, stood in lines to obtain fresh, bottled water, studied bulletin boards to try and learn where friends and loved ones were now.

The immediate effects of the flood have been fairly well documented. But now, more than a year after the event, the ongoing work to rebuild and recover from the flood still dominates the lives of thousands. This exhibit attempts to show not only the physical recovery of the Red River Valley, but also the emotional recovery of those who were affected by the flooding. Through interviews, documents and photographs we hope to show that the flood did not end when the water receded. Rather, this was only the beginning of a long and intensive recovery process, a process that in some cases will never end.

The materials in this exhibit are part of the Center's collection of materials on recovery from the flood.  For a more detailed description of this collection, see The Flood of 1997 in the Red River Valley: A Guide to Records Concerning Recovery from the Flood.

Note:  To see a photograph from the Center's collections, showing
a oil painting of the 1897 flood in the Red River Valley, follow this link

home sweet.jpg (20620 bytes)

Abandoned home near the Red River, East Grand Forks, Minnesota, May, 1997.

Background to the Exhibit

The Flood of 1997 had an impact on the entire Red River Valley with over 150,000 people suffering directly from the flood. Thus, a comprehensive project on flood recovery would be impossible. Therefore, the exhibit concentrates on several broad themes of recovery: the impact on housing,income, and emotions; how specific communities have tried to recover from the flood; the role of government in recovery efforts; and prospects for future flood prevention. In an effort to gather information on these themes, the staff of the Northwest Minnesota Historical Center conducted interviews with community leaders, business owners, homeowners, and families in the Valley. Interviews were also conducted with farmers in the outlying areas of these towns and various officials whose responsibilities were not limited to one municipality. Quotes from these interviews have been incorporated in the exhibit boards in order to better explain the documents and photographs.

Elements of Recovery

During the weeks of sandbagging, as walls went up around buildings and walls between individuals came crashing down, the camaraderie and hope that was built up reinforced community ties throughout the region. After the waters receded, the process of tearing down the sandbags and rebuilding the physical aspects of community began. Though the days of sandbagging had seemed endless, the Red River Valley soon realized that the days of recovery would be much longer and, at times, even more stressful.

At this time there are still those throughout the region who have not yet rebuilt their homes or businesses. Some never will. In May of 1998, East Grand Forks officials reluctantly admitted that their post-flood population had declined by 15%. A former resident, Mary Anne Dunlevy, said that she could not face the "months and months" of strain that would have been necessary to rebuild her home of some 30 years. She is now living in the Twin Cities in a condo "as far away from a river as I could find."

But recovery is not just about the rebuilding of homes and businesses. The infrastructure of entire communities had to be rebuilt. For example, the efforts of rural power co-ops and the Northern States Power Company to bring electricity back to these communities is thus documented. Water management is also a continuing recovery issue, including where to place new dikes and how to deal with water pollution throughout the region. Another issue concerning a large portion of this region's population is the recovery faced by farmers, and how the flood may have possibly accelerated the decline of small farms.

The role of government has been another critical element of the recovery process. Residents in the Valley have reacted with mixed feelings toward the activities of government in flood recovery. In this region, where individualism and taking care of one's own is a well-entrenched tradition, there is reluctance to accept too much government assistance. Yet the scale of this disaster has made increased assistance by government essential. And delays experienced when dealing with state and federal agencies have been particularly trying. There are cases where bureaucracy has been exceptionally fast in dealing with flood issues, as was the case with the opening of a new landfill for East Grand Forks. While this normally would take 6-8 months, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved the site of a new landfill in two weeks. On the other hand, the delay in Congressional action on the Federal Flood Assistance Bill sparked great debate and ire in the Valley.

As this exhibit shows, few people ever completely recover from a disaster of this magnitude. While communities and lives can be rebuilt, they remain forever changed. As with most natural disasters, communities were brought together both during the initial emergency and during the long recovery process. Today all that remains of many homes and businesses are memories. And for those who have left, memories are all that remain of their former lives.

Webster’s Dictionary defines "recovery" as "the act of returning to a normal state." Certainly this definition applies to the flood recovery efforts; as one person who was interviewed put it, "I just want my regular life back." Sadly, recovery has proved to be very difficult in this sense, and it is safe to say that many men and women will never fully recover from the 1997 flood.

forward.gif (616 bytes)

Return to top of page
Return to Northwest MN Historical Center Home Page
Return to MSUM Home Page

Last modified:  10/11/05
Send comments to: