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Fire adds to misery in flooded N.D. town Blaze under control, drinking water gone; 'It's a ghost town'


GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- As most of the die-hards fled yesterday from this unlivable city, struck by both flood and fire, residents began coming to grips with the knowledge that it could be weeks before they can return.

The supply of drinking water has run out, and the sewage, oil and animal carcasses fouling the floodwaters have prompted fears of disease.

In another blow to the battered city, a fire downtown added to the misery over the weekend. Flames destroyed three buildings and damaged several others. The fire's cause is still unknown.

"It's a ghost town," said Clint Blomquist as he headed out of Grand Forks in a red pickup, giving a lift to other refugees: two women and a 5-year-old boy. "It's devastating."

In what is being called a 500-year flood, the river rose to more than 53 feet yesterday, nearly twice its flood stage. The National Weather Service predicted that the river would crest today at about 54 feet.

Water has flowed into about 70 percent of Grand Forks, a city of roughly 10 square miles. Mayor Pat Owens has urged all the city's 50,000 residents to evacuate.

An Air Force base west of town is being used as a shelter. More than 3,000 people fleeing the flood had checked into the base yesterday.

The flooding was even more extensive in East Grand Forks, across the border in Minnesota, where nearly the entire town of more than 8,500 people was flooded.

Patients at the only hospital in Grand Forks, United Hospital, were being transferred to other medical centers in the Northern Plains.

A line of ambulances stood outside the hospital in case a wholesale evacuation was suddenly needed. Engineers hastily constructed a ring dike around United Hospital and a nearby nursing home, and National Guard soldiers set up water purification equipment.

LuAnn Holton, 51, who had been driven from her flooded home, said her elderly aunt was being transferred from United Hospital by helicopter to Bemidji, Minn. Holton was on her way there to see her aunt yesterday but was not sure where she would find lodging.

Her grandson, Jonathan, 5, sat next to her in Blomquist's pickup and buried his head in his hands.

"I don't like this," he said.

As of yesterday, there had been no reports of serious injuries or deaths related to the flooding, and a neighborly, frontier spirit seemed to prevail.

On the radio in Grand Forks, a steady stream of callers offered shelter in their homes for the displaced, as well as food, cribs and transportation.

"We've all lost a lot," one caller said, noting the need to stick together, "and we're going to lose a lot more."

The fire in downtown Grand Forks erupted Saturday afternoon. The water was so deep in the streets that firetrucks could not get to the burning buildings at first.

The fire was tamed yesterday as helicopters dropped water on it and firetrucks on flatbed trucks reached the area. The nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base sent a pumper truck that was big enough to navigate the deep water.

"We were scared last night for a while," said Deputy Fire Chief Peter O'Neill.

Three firefighters were treated for hypothermia.

Public schools in Grand Forks will be closed for at least a week. Classes at the University of North Dakota have been canceled for the remaining two weeks of the term.

Despite the evacuation orders, some stragglers in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks remained defiant, apparently determined to protect their homes. Local officials spoke on the radio today to implore them to leave.

Officials closed parts of Interstate 29, the major north-south route. And as the flooding worsened farther north, customs officials were prepared to close the Interstate 29 border crossing to Canada, the busiest crossing between Seattle and Detroit.

The flooding problems have been caused chiefly by the melting of the winter's record snowfall. To make matters worse, the Red River flows north, emptying into Lake Winnipeg in Canada, which is fro- zen. That is causing water to back up in the river.

This region is one of the flattest in the nation. An extra foot of floodwater can spread over a large area.

After the river crests, floodwaters are expected to remain at the same level for seven to 10 days. It could take weeks for the water to recede enough for property damage to be assessed.

Despite their problems, Holton and other Dakotans said they felt fortunate.

"Not one loss of life," she said, with a determined smile. "So we're all in pretty good spirits."

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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