The message spray-painted on the battered little yellow house that stands in the path of a proposed flood-control dike is simple, but it makes Mayor Pat Owens uneasy.

"Do not tear down," it says. "Die if you do.""I know there's still some anger," says Owens, whose first year as Grand Forks mayor was capped by the city's worst disaster. "This was a very stressful time for us, and a lot of people still feel that."

When floodwaters and fire roared through Grand Forks a year ago, many turned to their mayor for support. Barely 5 feet tall, Owens was a comforting giant, stepping forward at every chance to offer strength and encouragement.

"It was so much easier being the mayor back then," Owens says wist-fully of a time when going on TV to offer hope was often all she could do. "There are so many more battles to fight now."

A year later, every City Commission vote, every decision on how to spend disaster money or which houses to knock down is challenged by one pocket of citizens or another.

Residents have sued over amounts offered for ruined property, opposed spending $16 million on a downtown office park and fought the go-ahead for a $71 million convention center that had been planned before the flood.

Many remain leery of a proposed $300 million levee system because it will sweep away entire neighborhoods and erect huge flood walls alongside private backyards. It's expected to take four years to build.

Owens, as Grand Forks' most recognized public figure, is the one who hears the anger.

She is commonly stopped after public meetings by residents looking for answers, or someone to blame. Threats of violence, like the painted message, are rare and tension is easing, but a full-time security guard now sits inside City Hall's entrance, and the police chief makes a practice of leaving for home only when Owens does.

"If you ask if I'm frightened, no," she says. "More cautious? Yes."

Owens, 57, says she's learned to deal with the criticism and move on.

"I will listen to those who want to offer ideas or constructive criticism," she says. "But some people only want to hear certain answers, and I can't help them."

Local attorney Ron Fischer is a persistent critic of the plan to build the Aurora convention center and led a petition drive urging the city to postpone the project. He emphasizes his criticism is not aimed personally at the mayor and the commissioners.

"I have nothing but thanks and a lot of sympathy for them," Fischer says. "They have a tough job . . . and have put in countless and, in a lot of cases, thankless hours of work.

"But we are at a stage now where the decisions that are made can have very major, adverse consequences. And if we don't agree with something, we have to speak up."

All of this, of course, is part of recovery. Most days, Grand Forks and neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn., just across the Red River, echo with pounding hammers and whirring saws.

Ceremonies, both solemn and festive, are planned this weekend to mark the flood's anniversary. Church bells will ring, and parades and even a "Sandbaggers Ball" are planned.

It was a starkly different scene the weekend of April 18-20, 1997, when the swollen Red and Red Lake rivers breached the cities' levees and flooded 90 percent of Grand Forks and all of East Grand Forks, putting some neighborhoods under 10-15 feet of water. Some 47,000 Grand Forks residents and all 9,000 East Grand Forks residents had to evacuate.

Fire broke out that Saturday and, unchecked by helpless fire-fighters, gutted 11 downtown Grand Forks buildings. The Grand Forks Herald, forced out of its damaged plant, kept publishing with help from other newspapers; on Tuesday, it won the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

Damage in Grand Forks was put at $1.3 billion, in East Grand Forks at least $300 million.

All along the riverfronts, scores of tattered houses today testify to the disaster's scope: doors and windows boarded up, windows broken, walls marked by filthy river water.

"Broken promises, shattered dreams," reads a sign on one.

"Bah Hum Bug" is written in Christmas lights on the boarded front door of another

Owens' job was supposed to be part-time, 16-20 hours a week, paying $24,000. But she often spends 16 to 20 hours a day in her office.

John O'Leary, city urban development director, says Owens is intensely involved in all aspects of flood recovery, sometimes attending meetings that run past midnight.

He recalls one late-night meeting when Owens, working on almost no sleep, picked up her cell phone to call another city official with a question. That official was sitting directly across the desk.

"It's like that occasionally," O'Leary says. "`Sometimes, you just have to admit it's time to go home."

At home, Owens' husband of 40 years seldom sees his wife for more than a few hours a day. "I've learned to cook and do the laundry," says Bob Owens, who manages the city auditorium.

"He's a gem," she says. "Very forgiving."