Cover image for Red River rising : the anatomy of a flood and the survival of an American city
Red River rising : the anatomy of a flood and the survival of an American city
Shelby, Ashley, 1977-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
St. Paul, MN : Borealis Books, [2003]

Physical Description:
xii, 265 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GB1399.4.N9 S54 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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On April 19, 1997, in one of the most dramatic floods in U.S. history, more than 50,000 people abandoned their homes and businesses in Grand Forks, North Dakota. A nation watched as the heart of downtown, engulfed by a river, burst into flames above the water line. Like Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Red River Rising is a compelling true-life narrative about the confluence of natural forces and human error that shaped one of the greatest natural disasters in U.S. history. Ashley Shelby tells the dramatic stories of the flood: the suspenseful, blizzard-filled spring; the difficulties scientists had in predicting the river's crest; the struggles of people who fought the rising waters and of those who marshalled the city's forces. Despite technological advances in meteorology, despite the brute force of hundreds of earth movers, despite the utter determination of thousands who built and walked the levees, the river won. This book is a gripping story of the terrific cost of natural disasters and a fascinating portrait of how ordinary people rose to an extraordinary challenge. It is also a clear-eyed examination of the disastrous aftermath: the second-guessing and blame directed at the National Weather Service, at city and federal officials, and at the people of Grand Forks themselves as the city struggled to rebuild. With empathy and penetrating intelligence, Shelby uncovers the conflicts, conspiracy theories, and recriminations that tore at the community after the waters fell. Through the powerful stories of memorable individuals Red River Rising gives us a new perspective on disaster and community.

Author Notes

Ashley Shelby received a degree in journalism from Indiana University and a Masters of Fine Arts in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. Her work has been published in The Nation, Gastronomica, Post Road, The Sonora Review, and The Portland Review, as well as in the anthology Looking Back. Her fiction has been awarded the William Faulkner Short Fiction Award. Shelby grew up in Minneapolis and now lives in New York, where she works in publishing and is the co-curator of the KGB Bar Nonfiction Reading Series.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Shelby applies the familiar trope of public catastrophe as historical watershed to her study of the record-breaking 1997 flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota, that forced the evacuation of 50,000 residents and touched off devastating fires after the Red River overtopped its dikes. The event, she contends, bifurcated the town's sense of time into "before the flood" and "after the flood," a division she honors in the book. The first part is a lucid, sometimes gripping account of the gathering disaster, explaining the freak weather patterns that precipitated the inundation, the difficulties the National Weather Service had in predicting the unprecedented scale of the flood, and the desperate efforts of engineers to hold back the water. The second part is a thorough micro-history of the aftermath, detailing battles between flood victims and city officials over relief funds and the effects of a new dike system that expunged entire neighborhoods from the flood plain. Here Shelby gets mired in city politics-as-usual. She devotes much space to displaced residents' griping over the buyout offers they received from the city, and to a redevelopment bid for an warehouse that had little to do with the flood. Straining for pathos and meaning, she styles Grand Forks' last seven years as a single, apocalyptic "Joycean day" of "flood angst." That goes a bit far, but still, this is a well-researched portrait of a city coping with a crisis. Photos. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Review

On April 19, 1997, Grand Forks, ND, was devastated by flooding on the Red River: more than 50,000 people were forced from their homes, and a significant portion of the city's downtown was damaged by the river and a major fire. Journalist and fiction writer Shelby has written a detailed account of the disaster and its aftermath. The Red River was swollen to record levels by a series of blizzards during the winter of 1996-97 and a rapid melt-off during April. Neither the National Weather Service (NWS) nor the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could accurately predict the river's crest, leaving Grand Forks's citizens ill prepared for the floods. Afterward, the NWS was the focus of harsh and unfair criticism for failing to predict the flood's severity when in fact it had predicted the possibility of major flooding on the Red River. Drawing on news stories, government documents, and interviews with residents, Shelby presents a readable, thoughtful, and eyeopening account of a possibly unpreventable natural disaster and how it brings out the best and worst in people; for academic and public libraries.-Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ. Lib., Parkersburg (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Shelby, a journalist, has written an engaging chronology of events surrounding the Red River flood of 1997 and its impact on the physical and human landscape of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Essentially beginning with the flood event itself in 1997, the book focuses on the political and bureaucratic structures and individuals who played a role in the aftermath of the flood, trying to rebuild the health and vitality of a devastated community. Interwoven with the tale of meetings, planning sessions, and plans is an attempt to characterize the personal impacts, ambitions, and egos of political leaders, local community department heads, Corps of Engineers experts, private engineers, and local activists who confounded a more dispassionate approach to reconstruction. This is not an academically rigorous endeavor, nor was it meant to be. There is virtually no specific referencing of most of the material, though there is a "Notes" section emphasizing interviews and letter-based information. There is also a brief, generic "Selected Bibliography" section. Although perhaps useful as a "recommended reading" to initiate discussions of planning issues or political workings, the book is not suitable as a course resource. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers. S. A. Carlson emeritus, Humboldt State University

Table of Contents

Introductionp. ix
1. The Way Winter Endsp. 3
2. River Townp. 22
3. Watersickp. 35
4. Red River Risingp. 53
5. Flood and Firep. 79
6. Devastationp. 102
7. Angels and Devilsp. 127
8. The Value of Homep. 156
9. The Mistakep. 170
10. To Rebuild a City You Must Take It Apartp. 185
11. Flood Angstp. 211
12. Disaster Democracyp. 223
13. After the Floodp. 235
Notesp. 243
Selected Bibliographyp. 257
Acknowledgementsp. 263