The little border town of Emerson, Manitoba, was a surreal place to be in April 1997. Behind the permanent dike that had been doubled in height with the addition of a temporary structure of plywood and sandbags, Emerson was a dry island in the vast sea of the Red River, which had burst its banks. All the inhabitants, with the exception of a few who had been left behind to fight the flood, had been evacuated. The electric power still worked, so that at night the island of Emerson was ablaze in a strange white light. Deer and hares and other smaller animals had gravitated to the town to escape the ice cold waters of the raging river. They stood, frightened sentinels, in the white light of the ghost town.
A remarkable crew made up of town employees, a detachment of troops from the Canadian Forces and local Mounties kept the town of Emerson itself dry and secure. As the river rose to a critical level in late April, with no firm prediction on how high it would get, the struggle to maintain the wall around the town was in deadly earnest. Coordinated out of the Emerson Town Hall, the beleaguered warriors filled sandbags and directed them to potential weak points on the perimeter. So close is Emerson to the U.S. border, that a portion of the dike actually crossed into the small neighboring community of Noyes, Minnesota, protecting a U.S. Customs office and several nearby homes on U.S. soil. As residents noted at the time, what they were calling the "Red Sea" did not make distinctions between one side of the border and the other.[The writer returns five years later, and talks to survivors in both Emerson and Pembina of their ordeal during the 1997 flood, then goes to the border to travel to Grand Forks to interview survivors there...]
In the large new Canada Customs post at the border- built since the flood of '97 - I meet two tall, muscular customs officers who have recollections of the mayhem...When asked about the purpose of my trip to North Dakota by a U.S. Customs official with grey hair, I tell him I am going to Grand Forks to talk to people on the fifth anniversary of the flood of '97. Not bothering to ask me for ID, he comments sardonically, "Why not go to Pembina? They know at least as much about the flood as anyone in Grand Forks."
I follow his advice and drive into the little town of Pembina, two minutes south of the border. The town had been British territory before it was handed over the U.S. with the adoption of the forty-ninth parallel as the border across the Prairies in 1818. On the east side of Pembina, there is a high earthen dike to protect the town from the Red River. It is the same on the other side of the river in the tiny hamlet of St. Vincent Minnesota. This April the Red is tame, but the dike is there for protection against future floods.
On the main street of Pembina, I find an old preacher and his young disciple out trying to win converts. I ask them if they were in town for the great flood of '97. In reply, the old man hands me a pocket-sized pamphlet titled, "A Preacher of the Old School." In our conversation, Mr. W. Seed and I are at cross-purposes. He is trying to save my soul from a flood of biblical proportions while I am in search of memories of a mere earthly flood. I manager to get Mr. Seed onto my line of inquiry, and he tells me of the long series of floods that have afflicted this community - in 1897, 1950, 1966, and 1979. In 1997, he says, the dike held and the town was saved.From: The Border: Canada, the US and Dispatches From the 49th Parallel