Small town girl. Joins Navy. Sees the world. Flies in planes. Hunts submarines. Gets out of military and has 3 kids. Rejoins Air National Guard as an "old lady" of 38.

A humorous compilation of stories and lessons learned. Usually the hard way.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Out of Despair

“Above-normal snowfall in central and eastern North Dakota during the winter of 1996-97 and a blizzard on April 5-6, 1997, caused the worst flooding in the Red River of the North and Missouri River Basins in more than 100 years”*
“…A large fire started in Grand Forks, engulfing eleven buildings and sixty apartment units before being extinguished.”**

As if the floods weren’t enough.  Then came the fires.  How does one extinguish fires through streets that are completely encompassed by a river?  


Yesterday, my biggest concern was finding the perfect prom dress.
Suddenly the world looked very different.

It was my senior year.  As a teenager, we spoke of making a difference someday.  We were young and tragic news stories were only reported from half way around the world.   

When the request came, some went because they needed community service on their scholarships applications.  Some went to get out of school.  The idea of helping seemed nice.  No one knew of the impact the day would bring. 

“Alright kids,” the lady from the Red Cross began.  “We appreciate you volunteering here today.  We really can use the help.  There are a few things we need to go over first.  We need help unloading.  We are receiving donations from all over the country.  A semi-truck full of supplies just arrived from a Mormon church all the way from Salt Lake City!  The outpouring of help has been extraordinary. 
We need help stocking.  However, one of the biggest things we need are volunteers to individually go around and “shop” with the flood survivors.  We are discovering that they are not taking enough of what they need.  They want to save enough for someone else who may have lost more than them.  

“Encourage them.  Listen to them.”

So we listened.  

Everyone had a story.

“We were lucky,” they would begin. “We lost our home, but escaped right before the rush of waters overtook us.  We lost everything, but we are alive.”  It was the resounding theme.

Some felt fortunate, relieved.  Others, lost and dazed.  All were pained.  I wondered if they felt obligated to feel lucky.  It wasn’t lucky to be a flood victim.

A lady with a sleeping baby in her arms loaded her basket with only formula.  I told her she needed to take some food for herself.  She wept and nodded, as if she had forgotten.  I hugged her.  I wasn’t sure if it was against the rules.  I wanted to take her home with me.

Most took less than they needed of the supplies.  They were hardworking Midwesterners and were too proud. 

Despair echoed throughout the city’s destruction.  It had been described as looking like a war-zone.
Then, as they saw the donations fill the warehouses and arenas to the ceilings, something in their eyes changed.  Suddenly there was a trace of hope.  Disbelief.  Tears.

Out of despair came hope.  

Hope is what they drew on for strength to survive the worst of circumstances. It's what kept them going and gave them a reason to wake up another day.  “Out of the ashes we rise…”

And they did.

~Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul - and sings the tunes without the words - and never stops at all.
Emily Dickinson

Here is a shot of a few of us before we left that day.  I'm the one in the back right.  And yes, I thought I was extremely stylish at the time- can't you tell?  Poor Anna below me is showing off her thumb she slammed in a car door.  She's smooth like that.

Some facts on the flood of 1997:
  • Flood crest: 54.4 feet. (Flood stage: 28 feet)
  • Water flow: 140,000 cubic feet/second. (780 is normal)
  • 46,000 people evacuated in Grand Forks (90% of population)
  • 8600 homes with damage (75% of total) and 1616 apartments damaged (28% of total)
  • Almost two billion dollars in damage (Grand Forks and East Grand Forks)
  • 60,000 tons of debris removed.
  • 13 days without running water, 23 days without drinkable water.
  • No lives lost to the flood. 

Sorlie Bridge in East Grand Forks on April 17, 1997. Army Corps of Engineers picture.

*Quote and photo credits:  Perry, C.A., 2005, Summary of Significant Floods in the United States and Puerto Rico, 1994 Through 1998 Water Years: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5194, 327p.

**Shelby, Ashley (2003). Red River Rising. United States: Borealis Books. ISBN 0-87351-500-5.

For more information:

Written as a prompt from Write on Edge, "A true story about hope, illustrated through your experiences.


  1. I bet this made a huge impression on a teenaged mind and helped shape you. So interesting to me that people had to be encouraged to take enough. I would think the instinct might be to grab and hold onto what you could after losing so much.

    1. It definitely did. I know- that was what I found so interesting too. That's what stood out in my mind more than anything about the experience.

  2. Experiences like this are life-changers, across the board.

    You know that line about the prom dress? That would be a killer first line.

    This made me think of my own moments when the self-centered nature of youth faces the reality of poverty, hardship, etc. It's like taking baby steps outside of myself. That moment when you hugged the woman is especially powerful, and easily could be exploded into a snapshot with dialogue in and of itself.

    This is a story about hope, but also about discovery. I enjoyed experiencing that discovery with you.

    1. Great suggestion- thank you! I took you up on it!

  3. What an amazing experience for you to have as a teenager! We had terrible flooding here 2 years ago, and your stories truly resonate with me. I especially like this line:
    Hope is what they drew on for strength to survive the worst of circumstances.

    Without hope there is nothing. BTW, really enjoyed your inclusion of the facts.

    1. It definitely was an unforgettable experience. Thank you so much. The best part of the facts- despite everything there were zero lives lost.

  4. I remember doing this. And its funny, the biggest thing I remember is the lady telling us that the people weren't taking enough. Accepting help, even in the aftermath of disaster, can be a very humbling experience. Great job capturing the feeling there. I always look forward to seeing what you'll write about next. :)

    1. Yes- that's what stands out in my mind most as well! Thank you so much for reading, Melissa!! :)

  5. Wow, what an experience. Kudos to you and the others for helping for whatever reasons originally motivated you. I'm sure by the end of the day the reasons were forgotten. It's so tough for people who are used to being on the giving side to be on the receiving end. I love this line: "I wanted to take her home with me."

    1. Yes, we definitely left as changed people. Thank you so much!

  6. I volunteered as a teen alongside my father for the Red Cross emergency/disaster assessment pod for our local area. It was something I felt I should do. I had my Amateur Radio License (Way back before cell phones) so I was a core part of the emergency communications team and I saw some pretty horrific stuff during those years. I also met some really amazing people who had the strength to endure the aftermaths. Teachers in my high school thought I was most equipped to deal with life, citing to my parents on numerous occasions that I was the most grounded teen they ever met.

    This event definitely shaped you. You took the time to do research about the facts to ensure that your readers could grasp the big picture. Overall this is a powerful piece.

    Concrit: I got the impression that you were trying to distance yourself a little from the emotions that you experienced during this. Don't be afraid to expose the raw, core emotions Choosing descriptions like "haunted" or "harrowing" could add another layer of despair to the mix which will also showcase the contrasting "hope".

    A grammar question: "scholarships applications" I think should be "scholarship applications" but to be honest I forgot some of the rules about multiples.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing the snapshot of this tragic event. It's the perfect response to the prompt.

    1. Wow- sounds like you had some amazing experiences- probably both good and bad. Thank you so much for the advice- I always value your inputs. Thanks for the grammar catch too! :)

  7. I remember this. I tried to organize donations at the Sears store where I worked.

    I got so caught up in your narrative, I forgot I was supposed to be looking for concrits. Shelton's comment is a good point. I thought you were a resident of Grand Forks, so it threw me a bit to hear you talk about flood survivors as someone apart from you. I looked at your sidebar and saw MN--so obviously you were bussed in to help. What is the distance? Was it a hardship, and how did that factor in to the total experience? Perhaps it can't be evoked in 400 words, but in any case, I hope that is helpful feedback!

    1. Oh that's so neat that you did that! Yes, we were about a 3 hour bus ride. You are both right- stronger words would probably help in a limited word exchange. Thank you so much!

  8. "Out of the ashes we rise" very true. Midwesterners are famous for the endurance of their hope, and you illustrated that beautifully.

    1. Oh, thank you! Yes, they definitely are a strong breed!