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Former President Bill Clinton is cheered on by supporters following his speech in downtown Grand Forks at the flood obelisk. Former Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens and other city officials from the flood of 1997 in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks join Clinton on stage. Eric Hylden / Forum Communications Co.

Thousands turn out in Grand Forks to thank Clinton for flood help

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Former President Bill Clinton said he was "crippled" and using crutches the last time he visited Grand Forks on April 22, 1997, to deliver a speech at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

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And in a way, he told about 2,000 residents of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks on Saturday, "so were you" -- much of the community was under water that day, flooded by the Red River that climbed to a record crest of 54.35 feet.

"But it looks like we both got built back better," he said during a public event near the flood obelisk in downtown Grand Forks as residents and city officials flocked to the greenway along the river to see the former president back in town 15 years later.

Clinton said the scene of a flooded town with burning downtown buildings will never be forgotten by anyone alive at the time.

"It wasn't come hell or high water; it was come hell and high water," he said.

Former Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens said Clinton's 1997 visit to the devastated communities put him in the midst of evacuated residents who were "desperate," "dirty" and reduced to "refugees" as they sought shelter at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

But his commitment to help the cities rebuild, and his leadership in securing hundreds of millions of federal dollars for the recovery effort, gave residents the strength they needed, she said.

"He was the heart and soul that brought these cities back," Owens said.

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