Clinton flies in with promises of help for devastated Grand Forks

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President Bill Clinton went to the flood- and fire-ravaged city of Grand Forks in North Dakota yesterday, with promises of a Marshall- plan style rebuilding programme and a sympathetic ear for residents who may never return to their homes. He was greeted by a local newspaper headline, saying: "Welcome to Grand Forks, Mr President, Welcome to our nightmare".

That Mr Clinton - who has tended to delegate natural disaster visits to Vice-President (and future presidential candidate?) Al Gore during his second term and who is still on crutches following his knee injury - made the trip himself is a measure of the magnitude of the devastation, even in a country of real-life disaster spectaculars, and the way it has gripped the American public.

For several days now, the scenes from Grand Forks, where the Red River is running almost 30ft above flood level, have been apocalyptic. Main streets resemble broad rivers, office blocks are several storeys deep in water, suburbs show only red and grey roofs. Older houses are described as looking like tiny medieval castles with moats around them; the whole city as a "ghost town sitting inside a vast chocolate swamp".

Over the weekend, television news showed improbable sequences of city streets submerged under water, while flames spewed from solid brick buildings. First the flood, then the fire, then the plague? was the emotive burden of accompanying commentary.

What caused the fires is not known, but what prevented their dowsing was: floodwater prevented fire engines reaching the city centre, obscured the fire hydrants and reduced the water pressure, rendering hoses useless.

The floods also breached the city's sewers, making evacuation a priority. By Monday, most of the 50,000 population who remained were subject to "mandatory evacuation". People who had stood on rooftops to catch sight of helicopters trying to dowse flames the previous evening were roundly scolded on local radio for their irresponsibility. Only 10 per cent of the city is unaffected.

With the sewerage and other services out of action, there are predictions that much of the city will have to be rebuilt and that it will be months before people will be allowed to return. Estimates of the cost vary from a conservative $400m to more than $1bn (pounds 250m-pounds 625m). The pessimistic ask whether the city will ever be habitable again.

As with other recent United States floods, the region of Grand Forks is no innocent in matters of flood prevention and planning. It is a threat people live with. Even this year, with a combination of late and very heavy snow followed by a rapid thaw, it was hoped that a massive volunteer effort to reinforce dikes and build banks of sandbags might save the city. At the end of last week, however, Grand Forks had to concede defeat to the Red River. This was not just another flood, people said, as they abandoned their homes, but the sort of disaster that happens only once in 500 years.