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1997 Red River Flood, Part 4


Mike Olson, host of “Into the Music” and the Saturday Night blues show on Prairie Public, was living in Grand Forks and working at the UND radio stations 10 years ago, when city residents were in the midst of the flood battle of their lives. On this date, March 18th, 1997, Mike went home after work, and after roller blading around the block with his son, sat down on the back porch of his house. He had heard that a dike in another part of town had been breached, but the flood still didn’t seem like it was threatening his neighborhood…his family.

Mike Olson actuality: “I was sitting on my back door steps and as I looked across the street, completely silently the street very rapidly was filling with water coming up the sewers. This is completely silently and within a minute or two all of the streets were full of water and the water had already topped the curbs and was coming up toward the house. The flood was there and as the neighborhood started to walk around and look at what was happening, and talk about this and the strangeness of it, I remember asking one of our neighbors as we looked at this, if we’re at 52 feet now and it’s coming up and they say it’s going to 54 feet, when is this water going to go down? And he said, well, not until after it’s hit the crest. And it became apparent to me that there was more to come.

Realizing there was much more water on the way, Mike immediately moved his vehicles to higher and drier ground and more importantly sent his children and wife, Pam to Dickinson for the rest of the school year. Mike stayed behind to man the radio station and to try to help save the transmitters from flooding. The transmitters for the three UND radio stations were located on the north edge of the campus, just across Gateway Drive from the old Frontier entertainment complex. A week earlier, campus maintenance crews had built an 8 foot dike around the transmitters…just in case, but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t high enough. In a desperate attempt to build up the dike and save the transmitters, Mike and several others secured two canoes, and in the middle of the night tried to shuttle sandbags through the watery maze to the site.

Mike Olson’s voice: It was pitch dark. The glow of downtown burning. The smoke arising. The helicopters flying overhead dropping chemicals on the fire, trying to put the fire out downtown. Sirens were going off continually. Of course the National Guard posted everywhere, and Humvees going back and forth. Grand Forks had been transformed into a scene from out of a war…really. It was becoming very surreal. It looked very dire. It was pitch dark other than downtown burning and the glow of that and the lights of the helicopters and everything…and…the stars. But unfortunately by morning the water started to come up inside the dike and by morning it was…everything was flooded. The three university radio stations were knocked off the air, and it would be two months before just one of the stations would be up and running on a temporary “low power” signal. Eventually the one AM station and the two FM stations would be back on the air, full strength but there would be some changes down the road for the stations. In fact the FM stations, KUND and KFJM are now partnered with Prairie Public…important links in the statewide public radio network

By Merrill Piepkorn


Michael Olson interview

The Forum-April 18th and 19th, 1997