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James MacPherson, Associated Press, Published March 19 2010

Fargo residents refuse buyouts despite floods

Mac Butler believes he’ll beat the bloated Red River and save his home again this year. But a canoe and kayak are tied up outside his house just in case he’s wrong.

Butler and his wife, Jane, are among the final holdouts in an already flood-ravaged Fargo neighborhood where some three dozen homeowners have opted to accept government money to relocate over the past decade. On Sunday, the river is expected to crest up to 20 feet above the flood stage, meaning its overflowing waters could rush right up to the Butlers’ home – again.

“I’ve been invited to ask for a buyout, but I’m not interested,” said Mac Butler, a 58-year-old North Dakota State University biology professor. “I know it makes it look like I’m stubborn or foolish, but the local topography works in my favor – I’m on sort of a little plateau. I think we’ll be fine.”

He wasn’t so sure last year when the Red River jumped its banks and flooded the low-lying section near downtown Fargo known as Oak Grove. Butler worked around the clock for days and broke five sump pumps as water lapped against barricades of sandbags outside the back door of the century-old home.

During the nearly 30 years that Butler has lived in his home, he has fought three floods but has never let water enter his home. As he prepared for his fourth flood, Butler said he refuses to leave because he loves the location and figures he can save taxpayers money by not taking a buyout.

“This house has been here for 100 years, and I think it will be here for a while,” he said.

Butler considers flooding just part of the cost of living here, much like those who live in earthquake-prone areas.

“People shouldn’t be living in San Francisco, but they are; we shouldn’t be living here in Fargo, but we do,” Butler said. “Where’s safe? There is always something that’s going to get you.”

Others who have chosen to stay in the neighborhood also were taking precautions this week. Volunteers in Fargo filled their 1 millionth sandbag Wednesday as the river rose above 30 feet – considered major flood stage.

Fargo itself is beginning to show signs of wear and tear from days of preparations. Dump trucks carrying clay for dikes let some spill out, coating roads and making them a muddy mess. Roads are blocked off to let heavy equipment through.

Mayor Dennis Walaker thanked the volunteers and other workers Thursday but also warned residents that they still need to be cautious.

“We’re not through this thing yet, OK? Even if it crests on Saturday or Sunday, there’s a period of time where we’re very vulnerable to weather, very vulnerable to failure,” Walaker told city and local officials.

Across the street from Butler’s home, the Oak Grove Lutheran School suffered about $1.8 million in damage from last year’s flood. Already this year, the school’s football field is beneath 12 feet of water.

City crews this week began extending a clay dike from a permanent floodwall to help protect the school and the nearby neighborhood.

School spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell said the school should be safe this year with the 38-foot predicted crest, about 3 feet lower than the record set in 2009.

“We’re very confident we won’t have any issues,” Campbell said. “We feel 38 feet is very manageable.”

But others aren’t so sure, and some of Butler’s neighbors are thinking it might be time to leave.

Edward Schmidt, who lives across from the school, stacked “a few thousand” sandbags around his home with the help of students and neighbors.

“Last year, I got water in my basement because I didn’t have enough sandbags,” Schmidt said. “We did the best we could do this year.”

Unlike Butler, Schmidt said he and his wife are considering a buyout.

“We love living here, but we understand we may have to move,” said Schmidt, who has lived in the home for 23 years.

City spokeswoman Karena Carlson said Fargo has spent $7.4 million buying 25 homes in low-lying neighborhoods since last year’s flood. She said an additional seven homes are expected to be purchased by the time the river crests.

The buyouts, which are funded with city sales tax money, have ranged from $69,000 to $1.1 million, the latter of which was for a home owned by James and Margo McCulley.

James McCulley, a retired orthodontist, said his family didn’t have a choice. They had to leave because the home was in the path of a planned permanent floodwall. The couple moved this month to another house on higher ground several miles away.

“It was my dream house,” Margo McCulley said, “but it was just a house. Wherever we live is our home.”