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Published December 30 2011

2011 year in review: Floods, lockout and loss dominated headlines

FARGO – Despite instances of hope and optimism, the most unforgettable stories of 2011 were dominated by loss, conflict, fear and anger.

One event in particular attracted the full gamut of emotions and united residents across North Dakota and the region through the common thread of the state’s water troubles.

Reflecting on the events of 2011, Forum editors have ranked the top 10 stories covered by the newspaper this past year.

The Forum’s top story was last summer’s flood that ravaged Minot.

North Dakota residents have come to expect flood crises in places like Fargo, Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Bismarck or Valley City.

After the summer of 2011, Minot also has a place on that list.

The worst flood ever seen in Minot struck with little warning in June, when the Souris River buoyed to record levels and drove a quarter of the city’s 41,000 residents to evacuate.

A heavy snowpack exacerbated by lots of rain in southern Saskatchewan forced Canadian authorities to increase releases at two dams on the Souris River upstream of Minot.

Canadian reservoirs simply couldn’t store any more water, pushing more water down the pike than Minot officials were prepared to handle.

The city scrambled to build dikes to fend off the rising river, but the levees weren’t enough to save the community.

The water rose higher than planned, drenching the heart of Minot and flooding hundreds of homes with as much as 12 feet of water.

The Souris River crested at about 1,561.7 feet above sea level on June 26, shattering the previous record set in 1881 by nearly 4 feet.

Damages exceeded hundreds of millions of dollars. More than 4,100 homes were destroyed, some irreparably.

Six months later, Minot continues to recover from the devastating flood.

Statewide, flood disasters caused more than $1 billion in damages to various communities in 2011, including Fargo.

Rounding out The Forum’s top 10 stories of 2011:

2. Lockout divides American Crystal Sugar

A contract dispute be­tween American Crystal Sugar and its union workers dominated the latter months of 2011.

The 1,300 workers remain locked out after a four-month stalemate because both parties have failed to reach a compromise after numerous tries at the negotiating table.

The lockout began in August after union workers overwhelmingly rejected a final offer from company executives.

Temporary workers were brought in and continue to run American Crystal’s facilities in the Red River Valley.

Despite pleas and assistance from local, state and federal lawmakers, the company and union workers remain divided by their differences.

3. Perham basketball star collapses, recovers

For Perham, Minn., basketball player Zach Gabbard, 2011 was a roller coaster of a year.

Gabbard, then 17, collapsed from cardiac arrest while playing in a game against Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton in January.

After undergoing multiple procedures to save his life, Gabbard was well enough last spring to appear at the state tournament, where Perham won a state championship.

Gabbard has continued his recovery throughout the year, and a California doctor cleared him earlier this month to resume playing basketball.

Mindful of Gabbard’s health, though, Perham coaches admit Gabbard is not yet ready to hit the court outside of limited practice time.

4. Another record spring flood for Fargo area

Solid preparation gave Fargo-Moorhead residents a relatively easier spring flood fight, but high waters still made 2011 a year for the record books.

The Red River crested April 9 at 38.75 feet, marking the fourth-highest flood on record.

Despite peaking, though, the river remained high for several months before finally falling below flood stage at the end of August.

Meanwhile, springtime flooding inundated several rural communities, which were ravaged by overland flooding and high waters for prolonged periods.

The deluge of water prevented 6.3 million acres – or 28 percent – of North Dakota farmland from being planted in 2011.

5. News anchor resigns, alleges discrimination

More shake-ups this year at Valley News Live included the abrupt resignation of a 21-year veteran of broadcast news in the Red River Valley.

Robin Huebner left Fargo-based KXJB/KVLY in October, about two months after she was removed as a co-anchor on the 5 and 10 p.m. newscasts and replaced by 26-year-old Stephanie Goetz.

Huebner, 50, filed a federal lawsuit Dec. 20, accusing managers at Valley News Live and its parent company of gender and age discrimination.

Huebner claims Valley News Live intentionally demoted her in favor of a younger anchor who appealed to male viewers.

The station denies Huebner’s allegations, and both parties plan to settle the dispute in court.

6. Two teens slain in murder-suicide in Amor

In March, a teen murder-suicide rattled the rural community of Amor, Minn., 23 miles northeast of Fergus Falls.

Dylan Cox, 17, fired a gun multiple times at his 16-year-old girlfriend, Tabitha Belmonte, before turning the gun on himself March 21 at the Cox family home.

Tabitha had been living with Dylan and his parents, after giving birth to the teens’ baby girl, Emma.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, both Dylan’s and Tabitha’s parents sought custody of the child, who was then only 7 months old.

In April, an Otter Tail County judge granted custody of Emma to Dylan’s parents, Darrin and Catherine.

7. Fireworks accident decapitates Fargo man

A Fourth of July celebration turned fatal for a Fargo man, who lost his head in a fatal fireworks accident.

Jesse Burley lit a “mortar-style firework” in his hand July 4 – the explosion from which decapitated him, causing his death, authorities said.

Fireworks are illegal in Fargo city limits. After Burley’s death, authorities sought to raise awareness about fireworks safety.

The incident also sparked a federal investigation to determine where the deadly contraband came from.

8. Law enforcement nabs cornfield fugitives

In a bizarre week for metro-area crime, two separate incidents this fall forced law enforcement agencies to stake out rural cornfields in pursuit of fugitives.

The first incident Sept. 28 involved a domestic dispute between a couple driving near Argusville, N.D.

Dylan Pederson fled into a cornfield after he fired what was later determined to be a pellet gun.

Fearing the potential danger to authorities, officers surrounded the cornfield for 11 hours in near 90-degree heat before Pederson surrendered.

One week later, a high-risk sex offender traveling to Washington via private prisoner transport fled his transport van near Tower City on the western edge of Cass County.

Joseph Megna claimed he was being starved by the transport crew and escaped to find food.

The overnight manhunt ended Oct. 5 when Megna surrendered to regional authorities about 20 hours after he escaped.

9. Kirkpatrick gets life in murder-for-hire plot

Oklahoma resident Gene Kirkpatrick was sentenced to life without parole in October, bringing finality to a two-year legal drama after the murder of Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso.

A Cass County jury convicted Kirkpatrick of orchestrating Gattuso’s death in October 2009.

Kirkpatrick was upset with how Gattuso was raising his granddaughter following the death of Valerie Gattuso, Kirkpatrick’s daughter and Gattuso’s wife.

Prosecutors said Kirkpatrick paid his handyman, Michael Nakvinda, $3,000 to kill Gattuso. Nakvinda is also serving a life sentence for his role in the murder-for-hire.

10. Memorial Day storm rips through valley

The unofficial start to summer arrived with a punch when a super-cell thunderstorm tore through the Red River Valley on Memorial Day.

The storm left behind a trail of damage and debris, including snapped power poles, downed electrical lines and severed trees.

At one point, more than 26,000 customers were without power across Fargo, West Fargo and other parts of the region.

The National Weather Service later said the storm spawned three tornadoes, along with downburst winds of more than 70 mph and torrential rains.

North Dakota insurance officials said in June they’d paid out $4.2 million in damage claims associated with the storm.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541