GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- George Widman stood knee-deep in mud in the middle of his shattered store, in the middle of his shattered town, and shoveled.
It was April 1997 and Grand Forks had been gutted by flood, fire and the desperate evacuation of its 52,000 residents. The ice-choked Red River of the North had pushed miles beyond its banks that spring, swamping fields, roads and entire towns. A natural catastrophe and a regional calamity, it submerged an area roughly the size of Delaware.
As the waters receded, residents returned to a downtown in ashes, reeking of raw sewage and mildewed piles of waterlogged garbage that might once have been family heirlooms, kitchen appliances, children’s toys or photo albums. Amid the ruin, some wondered whether the city could, or should, rebuild.
Not Widman, 76, creator of the chocolate-covered potato chip. Once back in his little candy shop, he started scraping out the river muck, determined to give back to his city a taste of what it had lost.
“He wanted to be the first business to reopen,” said former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, recalling his encounter with Widman 20 years ago. “He didn’t do it because he wanted to make up lost revenue. He did it because he wanted to give candy away, so people that were weary and worn out could walk in that store, and he could give them candy.”
Even as the 20th anniversary of the Great Flood approaches, few in Grand Forks care to look back. When they do, they recall the fear, the heartbreak and hard work; the FEMA trailers and Salvation Army soup kitchens; and the neighborhoods the flood erased from city maps. They remember the moments of courage and kindness, and those who did their best in the face of nature’s worst.
“There’s a Chinese proverb: ‘Adversity reveals character,’ ” said Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown. “You could sense the pride in the community that comes from facing adversity. ... You could see a character you could be proud of.”
When rivers rise
The Red never has been a good neighbor. As it winds its way north along a pancake-flat prairie, any unusually heavy precipitation or rapid spring snowmelt can send it spilling out, forcing communities along its Minnesota and North Dakota banks to scramble for the sandbags.
Back in 1997, the spring thaw hit like a slow-motion catastrophe along the Red and its tributaries. Eight blizzards raked across the Red River Valley that winter, piling snow to the rooftops in many places. As that snow melted, it poured into the river, pushing it higher and higher as the current traveled north.
Breckenridge and Wahpeton flooded — twice. Then Ada. Crews in the neighboring cities of Fargo and Moorhead sandbagged frantically as the river crested at almost 40 feet and surged onward, bearing down on Grand Forks and its Minnesota neighbor, East Grand Forks.
Even as the Red rose at the rate of an inch an hour around Grand Forks, residents like Jon and Cindy Bonzer had no idea sandbags and 50-foot high earthwork levees wouldn’t be enough to hold back the flood.
“We’d always beat it” before, said Jon Bonzer, a California transplant who had gotten used to the annual sandbagging rite of spring. Even after digging out from under 8 feet of winter snow, he said most residents figured, “ ‘OK, so we’re going to have to throw sandbags, or we might have to be up all night on dike patrol.’ Three hours before the National Guard knocked on the front door of my house, my wife was doing the dishes. My son had some friends over. They were watching TV.”
A punch in the gut
Jon and Cindy Bonzer’s son, Matt, was 11 years old and playing in the front yard with his younger sister, Melissa, when the Red punched through their neighborhood levee. Icy water bubbled up from the sewers, trickling down the street toward them. It was the moment, he later realized, when his life — like the lives of everyone in town — divided into the time before the flood and what came after.
The National Guard arrived with orders to evacuate the entire neighborhood. The family packed overnight bags, moved the photo albums upstairs, loaded the dog in the car and left. Across the city, sirens wailed as more levees crumbled.
Jon Bonzer headed to his downtown business, Bonzer’s Sandwich Pub, and used the last of his inventory to make sandwiches for the sandbaggers. Meanwhile, the Red kept rising, lapping at the top of 52-foot earthwork levees.
The next day, Saturday, April 19, the Red spilled over the top of the levees, submerging downtown Grand Forks in water 4 feet deep. As the order came to evacuate everyone in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, tens of thousands of people began scattering along back roads, searching for escape routes that were still above water.
On the weary drive to Fargo, where relatives were waiting to take them in, Jon Bonzer looked over at his wife and joked: “All we need now is a fire, and then we’ve really got a disaster on our hands.”
By the time the Bonzers reached Fargo, it was all over the TV news — downtown Grand Forks was in flames.
Flooded roads kept fire engines from reaching the blaze, forcing emergency crews to dump chemicals from the air as the fire leapt from building to building. The flames reached Bonzer’s Pub that evening, reducing it to rubble.
“That was a punch in the gut,” Bonzer said, still shaken by the 20-year-old memory. “Your livelihood is going up in flames and your city’s underwater and you’re 80 miles away, watching it on TV. And you don’t know if your home is still there or not.”
The flood cut a $4 billion path of destruction across the Red River Valley. In Grand Forks alone, eight out of every 10 homes suffered flood damage and more than 1,000 would eventually be torn down. More than half the businesses in town were damaged or destroyed. Eleven buildings burned. Seventy percent of the city schools were damaged. Grand Forks Central High School had to hold its prom at the Air Force base that spring.
But Grand Forks today is a far cry from the bedraggled city of survivors 20 years ago.
Downtown is crowded with shops, parks and public art projects. Huge new flood walls screen the Red from the view of workers and college students strolling between coffee shops and pocket parks. On the edge of town, a greenway three times the size of New York’s Central Park replaced flood-ravaged neighborhoods lost to the river and to history.
Bonzer’s Pub reopened a few blocks from its old location — the first downtown business to do so — in November 1997 as crowds lined up around the block to celebrate. And Widman’s Candy Shop reopened in its old spot, where George Widman spent many more years handing out smiles and candy samples until his death in 2015 at age 95.
Everyone who now steps into the store releases a heady whiff of chocolate into the street outside. Everyone who walks out passes by a tiny plaque, set elbow-high in the door frame, commemorating the high-water mark of 1997.
Owner Dan Widman, George’s son, unfurls a poster that used to hang in the shop window during the recovery.
“A miracle in progress,” it reads. “Grand Forks.”