There is only one highway that leads out from the lake of ice-caked river water flowing where most of a city once stood.
To the north and the south, the road is blocked by the rampaging Red River. But for the displaced population of Grand Forks, Interstate 29 has become the crucial route to a new home and a life put on hold.
The thousands of flood refugees who continued to flee Sunday from North Dakota's third-largest city took to the highway in search of shelter, then fanned out over country lanes to a sprawling U.S. Air Force base, to the homes of friends and relatives, to bible camps and church halls and even into the living rooms of strangers.
Told by emergency officials Sunday that it could take as much as a month before they can return to their flood-quarantined city, nearly 40,000 homeless residents moved to new quarters as flood waters from the roiling Red River continued to rise, billowing into their homes. Water seeping in from the river now covers two-thirds of city streets and floods basements. Closer to the river, two-story dwellings are submerged to their rooftops.
The forced exodus from Grand Forks is unique in its totality, a textbook lesson in how a slow-moving flood can wreak as much damage as sudden disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes, effecting a virtual meltdown of city services. But what looms ahead is just as stunning--a city bereft of its entire population, a population in limbo.
"I kept thinking about what my house must be like under all that water," Deb Flicek, 40, a nurse displaced by the flood, said after fleeing Grand Forks. "The last look I got, there were swans and ducks floating on the river where my street used to be. Everybody who lived there was gone."
Residents left behind a town that seemed stricken by biblical calamity--first a flood that threatened water service, electric power and nearly every aspect of urban life, then a raging fire that consumed businesses in a dozen old buildings over four submerged city blocks.
The flood paralyzed the city so completely that firefighters were at first unable to reach the fire scene. Flood waters conked out the engines of their pumper trucks. When a larger truck dispatched from an Air Force base made it through the water, firefighters had to summon divers to locate hydrants hidden under six feet of water. Then, when they attached their hoses, they found that there was no pressure because flood waters had shut down the town's water delivery system.
Four firemen wading in the icy, sewage-clotted water were treated for hypothermia.
"We couldn't get in there to do the job right," muttered Fire Chief Richard Aulich.
Finally, Coast Guard "Skyhook" helicopters scooped tons of flood water from the frigid river in giant buckets and dumped it on the flaming buildings early Sunday, bringing the blaze under control by midday. Ghostly wisps of smoke drifted over the hollowed masonry skeletons that remained.
Ken Vein, the town's public works director, said that forecasters expect the bloated Red to reach a record 54-foot crest later today, then remain near that level for a week. Not until the river recedes at least two feet, Vein said, can city workers dike off the town's water treatment plant and then begin fixing broken valves and disinfecting water lines. That will take another two weeks, he said.
At least 30 of 36 sewage pump stations are not functioning, Vein said.
"It's like we've lost control of everything," Larry Niehaus said as he waited in line to fill his gas tank at a suburban gas station, one of the few still open. Niehaus was on the way with his wife and two daughters to stay with friends in the town of Mayville, 40 miles to the south.
Niehaus was typical of the majority of Grand Forks' dispossessed, families forced to move in with others until their homes are livable again.
Flicek was trying to keep her life as it was. She still plans to go to her job as a nurse at United Hospital, on Grand Forks' west side--even though the hospital is surrounded by a wall of sandbags and has transferred out most of its nonemergency patients, including 25 on Flicek's post-op ward.
But she will have to commute from her sister's house in Bemidji, Minn., across the river. There is a bridge, but Flicek is uncertain how long it will remain passable. "If it's blocked off, I don't know what I'll do," she mused. "I guess a shelter until I could make other arrangements."
Thousands more already had made that decision Sunday. At least 3,400 evacuees filed into a cavernous hangar inside the Grand Forks Air Force Base. There, inside work bays large enough to repair three KC-135 refueling jets, hundreds lay on metal cots, staking out tiny homes with the detritus of their lives.
Steve and Sherry Lindquist set up cots for themselves and their son, Bob, 11, and daughter, Ruth, 9, in a spot where a shaft of sunlight slanted in from a window vent towering high above them. Sherry, a technical school instructor, tried to read while Bob watched unhappily from his cot.
The family had wanted to drive to Minneapolis to stay with friends but "we needed a place to stay right now," Sherry said. "We took what we needed--you know, clothes, water and the important stuff, Disney tapes, Nintendo."
Already, said Red Cross officials running the temporary shelter, nearly 1,000 residents who sought shelter at the air base apparently have moved on to other locations.
For every evacuee who was busy making plans to find more permanent housing, there were others who drifted through the air base's hangars and gymnasiums in a daze.
It was hard enough for Diana Kimball to leave her trailer home. She knew that most of what she left would be ruined. But the 50-year-old dog groomer had brought more problems with her as she unpacked her bags inside the shelter.
Her 20-year-old son, Danny, was missing. Kimball had to keep one eye on Gladys Hart, a 93-year-old neighbor who was separated from her own son. And to complicate matters completely, Kimball had seven dogs with her--all belonging to another evacuee who could not be found.
"If I had my druthers, you betcha, I'd get some gas money together and drive to where my dad lives in New Mexico," Kimball said. "But I got to straighten things out here first, and then I got to find some kind of work.
"Time I did all that, the river'll probably be gone. So I guess I'm here for a while."