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25 years ago, the Red River crested at over 54 feet, devastating Grand Forks, N.D.


Twenty-five years ago this week at the border of North Dakota and Minnesota, the Red River crested at more than 54 feet, causing massive damage.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Floodwaters burst through another dike in Grand Forks, N.D., today. The city is filling up with water, and officials have urged all 50,000 residents to leave.

RASCOE: The flooding was so bad that at the time it happened, it caused the largest displacement of people any American city had seen. When disaster hit, Ken Vein was the Grand Forks City engineer and Public Works director. He joins us now from Grand Forks, N.D., where he still lives and serves on the city council. Thanks so much for being with us.

KEN VEIN: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

RASCOE: Can you take us back to that time? What do you remember the most? I know that it was a horrific amount of flooding and damage.

VEIN: I think one of the major things that I remember, of course, is we knew we were going to have a major flood, and we had prepared for a major flood somewhere - maybe around 52 feet. But what I remember is watching the water keep coming up and up, and soon it passed that 52 mark, and all of a sudden, you're scrambling. We are so flat here that it's just not easy to all of a sudden raise the levee for miles and miles. And so we kept trying and trying, and we kept raising the levee, and then, of course, the night that the levees were overtopped, we had no high ground to tie back into. And I think that's that point where you've been working so hard, and you finally realize there's nothing more you can do and the water's coming.

RASCOE: So what was that like being in that moment when you realize there's nothing else you can do?

VEIN: At that point, immediately, you start trying to assess - OK, where's the water coming over? Can we do backup levee systems? So we went in - we had payloaders, we dug up school grounds - any place we could do to find dirt so that we could try to kind of hold it back. Eventually, again, that didn't accomplish what we were trying to do, and the waters just kept coming up. And once they came up, they just started coming across the whole community.

RASCOE: What is your assessment of, like, where the greater Grand Forks community is today? Like, have they bounced back after this?

VEIN: I think the city has made just a major, significant bounce back. I mean, we used to say, hey, after the flood, we created a new normal. And now we just have a normal. The system that we put in place is such that we're protected well beyond the historic flood we already had. I think the recovery and the protection system we've put in place has been phenomenal.

RASCOE: And I understand you've played a big role in making those changes. So what are the actual changes like in the system now compared to what it was back then?

VEIN: Back then, we had one - what would be called Corps Certified Dike - and then everything else we had was a system of temporary levees. Right after the flood, the damage was done. Most of those temporary levees and that corps dike were damaged and had to be fully replaced. We were able to get congressional authorization and appropriations within 18 months to start building and completing a permanent flood protection project, which really changed the landscape of our city. We moved back away from the river because we learned to understand the significance of what nature can bring, and all the buildings in those low areas that were susceptible, you know, were not allowed to be replaced. We changed zoning and just made for a better city.

RASCOE: Has the area had to do anything to make the area more resilient due to climate change? Or were the changes that were made after the Red River flood enough to kind of, you know, deal with, you know, changing climate?

VEIN: Experience has shown us to date that what we've done is enough. In fact, it's more than enough. We've had more major flooding that have basically been nonevents for the major part of the population. It's been highly successful.

RASCOE: And you still live in Grand Forks. Did you ever think about leaving after the flood?

VEIN: I can say without a doubt, no. I probably became more connected than ever before. It was really an honor to be in the position that I did - to be a part of that initial recovery. And now coming back as a city council member, I get to look at the city from a little bit different angle, and I think I love the city and plan to stay here.

RASCOE: That was Grand Forks City Council member Ken Vein. Thank you so much for being with us.

VEIN: Well, thank you. I appreciate being on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.