Aftermath of a Flood

People in Grand Forks, N.D., tend to divide their histories into neat halves. They call the first half “Before The Flood.” The second half? Well, you guessed it.

Grand Forks is the state’s second largest city. Bigger than Bismarck, smaller than Fargo, to the south. Both cities are on the Red River, which flows north – one of the few, dividing North Dakota from Minnesota.

Back in 1982, Steve Hess left his father’s business in Thief River Falls, Minn., to open a store in Grand Forks. He found a location on “the best retail corner” downtown. His store, like his dad’s, is called The Jewel Box.

The store did well. But after a few years, “the downtown was going through some problems, like a lot of downtowns.” A regional mall pulled people away, leaving government buildings and law offices, but not a lot of retailers.

After rejecting the idea of relocating to the mall (“I don’t want to be told when to open, when to close, and what promotions to participate in”), Hess bought a downtown site next to the old Burlington Northern railroad depot. Against the advice of his banker, he built a 6,000-sq.-ft. store on somewhat elevated property. He reopened in February 1996.

It was little more than a year later, the last week of March 1997, when the eighth blizzard of the season, an ice storm, hit Grand Forks. Hess, overseas on a diamond-buying trip, got home to find the river rising and “everything from our basement in the living room and family room,” where family members had presciently moved it.

Every year the Red River floods. Most years dikes hold it back. As March became April, the water, fed by melting snow, rose. And it kept rising.

“Flooding is a slow process. All week they were talking about how fast the snow was melting, how high the river was. The crest predictions got higher and higher.”

Hess and his staff moved store inventory to the upper shelves of his free-standing vault. With business “miserable,” he “gave everybody time off to look out for their homes and help with the community effort.” He and his wife took their places on the line at Sandbag Central. Sand flowed down “six or eight chutes.” Steve and Judy Hess filled bags, which were loaded on pallets, and trucked to the river.

On Friday evening, April 19, sirens went off, indicating the dikes had been breached. Hess went to The Jewel Box and plugged the sinks and toilets. At 1:00 in the morning he stood outside the store watching water seep up the lower streets of Grand Forks.

A few days later, “I was watching the news, and they said: ‘There’s a fire in downtown Grand Forks.’ My heart sank. I thought: That’s all we need. It spread to 11 buildings.” To contain the blaze, “they ended up using helicopters and buckets, like they do with forest fires.”

Hess drove back into town two weeks after the water receded. He saw “mattresses, photo albums, furniture, even a wedding dress,” piled on curbs, coated in mud. “Street after street.” One employee’s house, adjacent to a dike, had been “flooded to the rafters.” Another lived in an apartment downtown. “Her whole building burned up. She lost everything.”

Few people in Grand Forks escaped some loss. Flood water ruined Hess’s recently remodeled basement. But when he returned to the store, everything was just as it was. Thanks to the new location, “we were the only business downtown that didn’t flood.” Luck he still marvels at. Luck that comes, he says, with a little bit of guilt.

Hess joined a “downtown development commission” consisting of town council members and businesspeople. Construction has begun on two major buildings.

“I’m committed to downtown. It’s where I do business, and I need to give back.”

The flood, he says, made him look at things in new ways.

“You’re watching TV and it says, ‘Flash flooding here,’ or ‘Flash flooding there.’ You don’t pay attention. If you haven’t lived through it, it’s hard to imagine.” But if you have, “you know what they’re going through, what it’s going to take to come back. There’s much more … empathy.”