Lessons Learned After A North Dakota Flood Twenty years ago, 50,000 residents were evacuated from Grand Forks, N.D., after a devastating flood. Mayor Michael Brown talks with Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the town's new flood protections.
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Lessons Learned After A North Dakota Flood

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Lessons Learned After A North Dakota Flood

Lessons Learned After A North Dakota Flood

Lessons Learned After A North Dakota Flood

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Twenty years ago, 50,000 residents were evacuated from Grand Forks, N.D., after a devastating flood. Mayor Michael Brown talks with Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the town's new flood protections.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We're now going to take a look at another flood and what lessons it may have for Houston and other cities facing the possibility of disaster. Twenty years ago, 50,000 residents were evacuated from Grand Forks, N.D., when the red river burst its banks. At the time, it was the largest displacement ever in an American city.

What followed was a painful process of raising homes, redrawing maps and building flood walls. The town has been well-protected ever since. Michael Brown has been the mayor of Grand Forks since the year 2000. And he joins us now. Good morning.

MICHAEL BROWN: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So can you remind us, first, of the devastation your city faced in 1997? Take us back.

BROWN: Oh, it was like looking out across the ocean. There was water from as far as you could see both ways. And I think it was over a billion dollars worth of damage to our community and East Grand Forks. Seemed quite hopeless, but our message today is one of hope. And I think FEMA has referred to us as a poster child for flood recovery because of what we've accomplished as a community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After the flood, the city decided some homes needed to be removed to make way for key infrastructure. How was that decision made?

BROWN: Decision-making - that's the most important thing about recovery is people have to make decisions, and whether they're popular or not, to allow the recovery to occur. So we had to choose places that were in the floodplain that couldn't be rebuilt. And those entry-level homes had to be taken to build the infrastructure for the flood recovery project.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your own home was slated to be raised to make way for this new flood system. Is that right?

BROWN: Yes. That's why I ran for mayor. I didn't think they needed to. And then in hindsight...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you were fighting it?

BROWN: Yes. You realize how small you are as a person compared to the community and the needs of that community. So we moved our home to another spot so that the flood recovery process could occur. So it was the right decision to do.

And I think we have a very interesting book. It's called "Grand Forks Flood Disaster and Recovery Lessons Learned." And we shared those with Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Biloxi, Miss., Bernard Parish, New Orleans. We're happy to share those lessons with anyone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you explain for people who may not understand, why did they have to move some of the houses?

BROWN: Because they were close to the river. And if you're going to build a flood protection project to protect a city - a dike - then those homes have to go on until the infrastructure is solid.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you just give us a little example of some of the other things that were done to mitigate flood damage?

BROWN: Well, you have one-stop shops where you have - when a person comes for a building permit or something, you have everything available for them in one office. So they don't have to go from city hall to public works to somewhere else. So that one-stop shop really facilitated recovery.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Meaning people would go to this one office, would be able to get all the permits they needed?

BROWN: Right, all the permits and permission. And it's also absolutely essential that there are solid partnerships between all agencies in the government, the county, the city, public works and the school district. Everybody has to be on the same page moving forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: City planners in Houston are going to have to make some tough choices. What advice do you have for them?

BROWN: Make them (laughter). And don't do what's popular. Do what's right. You have to protect the community, its future. Or it won't be able to grow up. It won't be able to attract industry or business. You need to have a safe, vibrant, prospering, growing community to do well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael Brown, mayor of Grand Forks, N.D. Thank you very much.

BROWN: Thank you. My pleasure.

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