GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The water is gone now. What remains is a city of garbage. Sidewalks are hidden under trash mountains. The streets tremble under the wheels of dump trucks. Every day, the mounds of refuse grow higher, as if there is nothing in these sodden houses left to salvage.
The trucks fill, load after groaning load, and rumble west. Two miles outside of town, they line up, waiting to spill the detritus of 50,000 lives into the clay bowels of a waste Matterhorn. Overhead, shrieking gulls and scavenger birds wheel in the air, impatiently eyeing the city's leftovers.
A month after Grand Forks' fall to the Red River, the massive $3-million cleanup is exposing the sweeping damage that the flood waters obscured. Slowly, residents are returning to their homes like liberated prisoners, desperate to put their lives back together. But the piles of soggy wood, battered freezers and warped photo albums taunt them with the certainty that things will never be the same.
"I know this is my house," said railroad brakeman Clark Thomson, as friends from a local church gutted what once had been his family's dream home. "But when you walk inside, with the smell and the mold and everything gone, it's like we never lived here."
A tentativeness has replaced the can-do spirit that Grand Forks residents mustered in the first days after the flood. Even as city officials lobbied legislators in Washington this week to free up $400 million for flood relief, residents were anguishing over the dimensions of a newly proposed dike project that could displace up to 2,000 of their homes and swallow up much of the city's faded downtown district--all to ensure that a flood as devastating as last month's will never happen again.
Army engineers and Grand Forks officials tout the $180-million levee project as the only sensible way to reassure the business community and persuade new firms to locate in a city now infamously prone to the perils of nature. But the remedy may be so drastic--transforming a downtown and riverfront that many here prized for their serene quaintness--that some officials are resigned to seeing residents and business owners drift away by the thousands.
An Exodus Estimated at 10% of Population
At least 10% of the population likely will leave, an inevitable exodus that officials hope will not feed on itself. "We're just hoping we can keep the numbers that low," City Council President Tom Hagness said.
At the dairy he manages, Hagness' office manager, Jackie Mitchell, worries whether she can stay in Grand Forks. Under the proposed dike project, the flood-soaked house she and her husband want to retire in would have to be sold to the government. Every morning, she lobbies Hagness to find some way to redraw the dike line away from her house. Mitchell is just one of hundreds of distressed homeowners who are pleading with city officials to save their waterlogged dwellings even as they work to repair them.
"If they take our home away, there's no reason left for us to stay here," Mitchell said.
About half of Grand Forks' population has returned in some fashion, said Charles Grotte, a city public works official. In neighborhoods where water damage was slight, limited to basements and garages, some families have moved back, jury-rigging electric wiring for power and space heaters for warmth. Others are living out of campers parked in their driveways.
Each day, Clark and Debbie Thomson enter their soggy shell of a house after a short drive from an apartment they are renting for three months on the edge of town. Wearing rubber gloves and surgical masks to protect themselves from mold, they have removed a water-ruined freezer, smashed cabinets and armchairs, their 5-year-old daughter's Barbie toy classroom and mounds of flaky drywall. Started a week ago, their sidewalk pile is nearly 5 feet high, dwarfed by 10-foot stacks deposited by their neighbors.
As busy as Clark Thomson has been, he is not itching to begin repairs. He is not even sure the family can return. The proposed dike would run in the alley right behind the red-shingle frame house. But even before he can decide whether he wants to live next to a flood wall, he needs to find out whether he can collect on the flood insurance he bought in March. It was supposed to go into effect April 21. But the Red River washed into his home the day before.
"It's like no matter what you do right, you end up losing," he said, still hopeful that Congress will pass an exemption allowing those who purchased insurance less than a month before the flood to get help.
Even if the insurance money comes, even if his house is on the right side of the new flood wall, the Thomsons are not so sure they want to stay--at least so close to the river. "The river's a beautiful sight," Debbie Thomson said, "but not when it's in your living room."
Several blocks north, Jerry and Marilyn Bakke have emptied their flooded basement of its soggy contents, stripped off rotting drywall and are almost ready to start repairs.