Flood Stage and Rising

Flood Stage and Rising

Flood Stage and Rising

Flood Stage and Rising


What could be safer than Grand Forks, North Dakota, settled on the vast, flat plain of the Red River? There'd be no danger unless the whole town went under water. But in April 1997 that is precisely what happened. Flood Stage and Rising tells the story of that month-long disaster from the point of view of one who lived through it--fighting the flood shoulder-to-shoulder with her neighbors, watching in horror as the water breaks the dikes, fleeing the city only to see, via newscasts, her town burst into flames at the height of the flood--and finally working to put her own and Grand Fork's life back together. As she chronicles North Dakota's disastrous winter and spring--and the tortuous recovery process that continues to this day--Jane Varley gives us a shocking, moving picture of the reality behind the headline news that riveted the nation. A gifted poet and essayist, Varley has crafted a first-rate adventure narrative that is also a love story about a particular place and time, infused with her passion for the natural world, a curiosity about rivers and remote landscapes, and a need for meaning. Her story culminates a life of travels that prepared her--and prepares us--for what we see in North Dakota as the lake bed of the Red River Valley refills with water like a ghost of its ancient past.


North Dakota. I liked the sound of it, the idea of it, the promise of its white space as it appeared in the atlas, an inviting blankness between highways and towns, but cold rain poured down, curtaining the state border as my husband, Gary, and I arrived. the farther north we went, the more dark and rainy it got. Wintry, even. It was May.

We left I-94, our route through Minnesota, and started due north on I-29 into northern North Dakota. With so little traffic, we focused on the freeway pavement, the straightness emphasized by the stark landscape and ice heaves cracking the edges. Billboards seemed enormous in the flat, blank terrain: a seed company, a duty-free store at the Canadian border, the mall at Grand Forks. Massive fields with chunky, black soil filled spaces between farms, and long stretches of stark, battered trees, bowed from the western wind, marked the borders. When we pulled off at a gas station, we parked next to two horses tethered at the gas pumps. Our eyes met. What sort of place was this?

Gary studied the trees along the freeway as we set out again. “They’re not even budding yet.” He was used to the lush greens and blossoms at this time of year in his home state, Virginia, which we were leaving for North Dakota. the land was flat, so flat it looked bizarre, and grayness bathed the fields as if all color had been wrung out. Gary mentioned, in an uncharacteristically dreary tone, that his stomach hurt. I couldn’t believe the magnitude of the sky and the feeling that I was riding above ground. North was all I kept thinking.

When our destination, the city of Grand Forks, appeared in the distance, it began abruptly, buildings and a water tower lined up on an edge that looked strictly formed, as if no one dared cross the boundary into the adjacent field of murky dirt. Gary took the first exit to a four-lane street loaded with stubby buildings: discount stores, gas stations, a mall, fast food. Sam’s Club and WalMart held central positions. Multiplex apartments, sameness upon sameness, lurked behind the main drag.

This was a city of right angles. We turned left off the east-west straight arrow of the Wal-Mart stretch onto a north-south straight arrow called Washington Street, which looked like another version of what we had just seen, only . . .

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