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Published July 29 2010

Final Cass County flood buyouts are back on track

Sitting in a split-level home that 16 months ago was soaked to the floorboards in floodwater and fuel oil, Lorraine Read learned Wednesday that her long wait for a buyout offer is almost over.

“Oh, wonderful,” she said.

Cass County’s third and final round of buyouts stemming from the Red River flood in spring 2009 is back on track after Congress approved a supplemental funding bill Tuesday.

The $59 billion bill to fund the troop surge in Afghanistan also includes $5.1 million to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, The Associated Press reported.

The county was relying on FEMA funding to help pay for 39 buyouts totaling about $11 million through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

However, the county had to suspend the buyout appraisal process in early February when FEMA said it would need supplemental funds to cover disaster-related costs in the fiscal year 2010 budget.

With President Barack Obama expected to sign the bill that passed Tuesday into law, the appraisal process will resume immediately, County Administrator Bonnie Johnson said.

It will be at least a month, and more likely two, before homeowners start to receive buyout offers, County Engineer Keith Berndt said, adding that he hopes to have the buyouts completed this fall.

“It’s going to be a big relief, I think, for a lot of homeowners to know because I think we’ve got a lot of folks out there in limbo who didn’t know whether they’d be offered an acquisition or not,” he said.

Among them were Read and her ailing 77-year-old husband, Herbran, who had to be rescued from their Pfiffer Drive home north of Oxbow by a U.S. Coast Guard airboat during the record flood. Fourteen inches of water inundated their first floor.

The couple spent a chunk of their savings repairing the home to make it livable, but held off on trying to find other housing because they didn’t know if a buyout offer would arrive.

“You just sit wondering, ‘What do we do?’ ” she said.

If completed, the 39 buyouts will bring the number of Cass County acquisitions since the 2009 flood to 79. Forty homes were acquired through a separate FEMA program and state and local matching funds.

One homeowner already withdrew from the final list. Berndt said he won’t be surprised if some of the remaining 39 do the same, having fixed up their flood-damaged homes and grown comfortable in them again.

“We hope that doesn’t happen, but I can see it happening,” he said.

Johnson said the state’s congressional delegation – Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy – deserves credit “for really working on this nonstop to get the funding in place here.”

In a joint statement, the delegation said it will work closely with FEMA “to ensure that North Dakota does not experience further unnecessary delays due to administrative red tape.”

The $11 million for Cass County is part of about

$15 million the state will get for buyouts through the hazard mitigation program, officials said. Other counties in line include Barnes, Ransom and Ramsey, said Lonnie Hoffer, disaster recovery chief for the state Department of Emergency Services.

The state should receive the money in about two weeks, he said, adding, “We’re going to put a high priority on Cass County’s acquisition.”

For the Reads, it can’t happen soon enough.

“We’re looking forward to just moving out and living normal,” Lorraine Read said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528