April 1997. The winter of my junior year of high school was especially brutal -- even by North Dakota standards. Relentless blizzards began in October, stretching through early March, and then turned into an ice storm that gutted the state’s power grid. Ice jammed the overflowing riverbanks, already backed up by spring thaw. Despite our best efforts to sandbag and salvage the city, the flood waters came. Then, our lives became a scene out of a horror movie: downtown buildings, submerged in 12 feet of flood water, began to burn -- the spark of an electrical fire torching our newspaper and state art institute. Never before had such a huge swath of people been evacuated so far -- as a rural region, the evacuation covered the entire population, and was the largest per capita natural disaster in American history (before Hurricane Katrina).
Over 100,000 people were displaced. Nursing home patients were helicoptered out and sent hours away, wherever there was room. Every home, every school, every church saw flood waters wash away what had been treasured. Some returned to no home at all -- only a foundation left where a home, business, or church used to stand. We evacuated without saying goodbye, without any planning, not knowing where we were going or when we would return.
The scenes unfolding before us today feel eerily similar to the spring of 1997. I have the same spinning, confusing, sick-to-my-stomach feeling I remember in those early days. We felt so disconnected, lost and alone. It felt like nothing would ever be the same again.
Early in the days after we returned to our homes -- before the basements were cleaned out, before downtown was restored -- in the days when we were still under an evening curfew, and grocery stores had limited supplies, a gentle evening rain washed over the Red River Valley.
And a perfect, full rainbow stretched over the prairie sky.
I could see it over my parent’s country farm. It was visible to those in the burnt out downtown. The rainbow wrapped over my friends living in FEMA trailers and campers.