Monday, December 14, 2009

Homeward Bound/-17º F

As the windchill factor has dipped to -17º F in my hometown today, I am reminded that I am heading home. My grandma turns 89 years old this month, and we are planning a long drive across the Midwest to the northern plains, roughly thirteen hours from Oshkosh, Wisconsin to Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Grand Forks sits at the juncture of two rivers, one flowing north (Red River), one flowing south (Red Lake River). In the spring of 1997, the Red River was slowly melting as it coursed northwards. It remained frozen north of Grand Forks. The city and surrounding areas were inundated with water, and the communities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, were evacuated by the National Guard. Since the Red River Valley was once the bottom of a vast glacial lake, the flood spread over a hundred miles.... Oslo, Minnesota, became an island. Reluctantly, my grandma drove in the early morning hours to her hometown of Edmore, roughly ninety miles west. [The windchill is -29º F there today].

After Grand Forks evacuated, an electrical fire spread through the historic downtown. Firefighters could not get their trucks through the high waters (image above).

Twelve years after the flood and fire, the city has never looked better. New dikes, new biking/walking paths, expanded public greenspaces, a thriving arts community downtown. My Art Deco junior high school, originally slated for demolition after the flood, was adapted for reuse as a senior citizens' apartment building. My grandma took me through the building as the crews were working on Mr. Sinclair's former mathematics classroom, changing it into a small apartment with enormous south-facing windows. The Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] proclaimed this project a successful use of 'preservation as part of the recovery effort, to assure the residents of a community that their memories and values will continue to thrive as the community rebuilds.'

See: C.A. Bigenwald and Randall White, "Heritage Preservation and Disaster Management: United States and Canada," Options Politiques (April 2003): pp. 36-40. Available at:

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