How Grand Forks Survived & Thrived

By Janaki Jane, Colorado Spirit
Some may remember that the Red River Valley of the North, in North Dakota and Minnesota, flooded terribly in the spring of 1997. Grand Forks, North Dakota, a city of over 50,000 people, had 130,000 cubic feet second of water rushing through it. Much like the Town of Lyons, over 90% of the population was evacuated.

Approximately 12,000 properties including businesses and homes were damaged.

In 2011, the City of Grand Forks published the “Grand Forks Flood Disaster and Recovery Lessons Learned” to offer the help of their experience to other communities. Halfway down the first page of the fourteen page document, a sentence reads: “The recovery of this community still continues, but there have been monumental strides taken.” That was written fourteen years after the devastating floods. Recovery takes time.

However, there is a “new normal.” Grand Forks has gone through shock and grief, and now people accept that things will never be the same as they were before the flood. Things are different, and most agree, better. Robert B. Olshansky, who studies how communities recover from disaster, emphasizes this when he writes: “To some degree, recovery always involves change. The community will never be exactly what it was before. It will look different, residents will migrate, and the economy will change. All communities change and evolve over time, but a disaster accelerates this process.”

A Google Earth search shows a huge greenway between the current city of Grand Forks and the river. Lines of trees show where there used to be houses and streets. The current Mayor, Michael Brown, talked to North Dakota Horizons magazine about the residents who lived, until the flood, in one area next to the river; “Just look at Lincoln Drive Park that takes the place of a neighborhood that was displaced. The people who once lived there are proud of it and hold a remembrance ceremony every year. Nobody refused to give up their home after the flood, although some came close to it. There were formulas for taking out homes and they worked through it with FEMA.” Ironically, the same article says that the Mayor himself resisted giving up his family home in another flooded area of the city, but eventually took the buy-out.

The main shopping area of the city has moved away from the river, and investment in new housing and new businesses has surpassed pre-flood levels.
A similarity between the Grand Forks flood and the September 2013 Colorado floods is that both states had established relationships with FEMA and response non-profits in disasters previous to the floods. Governor Hickenlooper, in his speeches at the re-opening of Highways 7 and 36, spoke about how Colorado’s good relationship with FEMA was essential to getting the road open more quickly than anyone thought possible.

The same things help individuals to get through trauma and disaster as those that help communities; strong ties to others for individuals, strong working relationships with outside governments/agencies for communities, and a willingness to move forward and take action for both. There is a term used to describe what is experienced by people and groups who come out of a traumatic event better than they were before it; with an increased awareness of their own strengths and of possibilities, with closer relationships and a greater appreciation for what life has to offer. It’s called posttraumatic growth. Grand Forks demonstrates that. Colorado now has the opportunity to demonstrate posttraumatic growth, too.

Contact the Lyons and Environs Colorado Spirit Team by coming to see us during office hours at 431-B Main Street Monday through Friday from 10am-2pm, by calling 720-226-8709, or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Find out flood related information at, or browse our Pinterest page about Lyons at
Colorado Spirit Teams in Boulder County are a program of Mental Health Partners.