Published May 31 2012
PART 1 OF 3: A year after Souris flooding, emotions are mixed in Minot
Cleaning out their flooded home, trying to find contractors, dealing with price-gouging, wondering if they will get a government buyout. The “to do” list and the waiting of the past year have taken a toll.
“I have realized through this that I have a backbone of steel, though,” Cindy Griffith said. “I have a toughness I never knew I had.”
Similar stories are abundant throughout North Dakota’s fourth-largest city, which suffered record-breaking flooding that wreaked havoc on more than 4,000 homes and businesses – along with neighboring towns – last June.
Signs of the flood remain in the heart of the city a year after the first evacuation warnings were issued. Homes with broken out windows, stacks of debris and scattered sandbags are silent and solemn reminders of what this city has endured.
But there also are signals of hope, a word that’s become a key theme as the city recovers. There are a series of Summer of Hope events planned this year. Yellow signs sprinkled in yards of damaged homes proclaim, “I’m coming back!”
Throughout once-flooded neighborhoods, families have worked to tear away the devastation and try to make their homes whole again.
Minot City Manager David Waind said residents are filled with a mix of emotions.
“Certainly there’s been frustration. There’s been anger. There’s been all of those things,” he said. “I think that the further into the recovery we get, the more decisions that are made, the more reconstruction that’s done, the more people are able to get out of the temporary housing and into a permanent housing situation, the more normal their lives will become.”
‘We were all affected’
George and Joanne Slanger had watched the Souris River, also known as the Mouse River, throughout the year and knew things weren’t normal.
The couple cross-country skied on the river every year, but the winter of 2010-11 was different. The river was mushy and not safe, Joanne Slanger said. That spring, they watched the temperamental river rise and fall during their walks.
The Slangers were among the thousands who evacuated their homes in late May after officials became concerned about high water flows and the quickness of the river’s rising.
The couple, who lived a block from the river, assumed their basement would flood.
“We never dreamed it would be any worse than that,” she said.
The city would win the battle against the river for the next few weeks – residents even moved back home – but the mood by June 20, 2011, was much more serious.
Going into Father’s Day weekend, the city felt it had dodged the bullet, Waind said.
“Then of course, over the weekend, it started to crumble as we found out Saskatchewan had gotten just absolutely hammered with the rain event, and it (the flood) was coming,” he said.
Joanne Slanger said she will never forget Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman issuing the city’s second evacuation.
“He hated to give us terrible news,” she said. “It (the river) was going to blow.”
Residents scrambled to save as many of their possessions as possible before the river took over their homes. Neighborhoods were packed with U-Hauls, horse trailers and pickups. National Guard soldiers directed traffic.
Zimbelman, who quickly became the face of last summer’s flood, knew how devastating the 1969 flood was to his community and how another flood would affect residents’ lives.
“That was really difficult to know that ‘this is it’ and to try to deliver that to the people of the community so that they fully understood, ‘Get out, and get your stuff out,’ ” he said in a recent interview at Minot City Hall, which was saved by a dike.
The 2011 flood reached a record level of 1,561.7 feet above sea level, beating the previous record set in 1881 by 3.7 feet. It also topped the flood of 1969, remembered by many Minot residents, by about 6.3 feet.
The flood cut through the heart of the city and forced one-fourth of the population to move in with other family or friends, live in hotels or use emergency homeless shelters.
Waind said it was heartbreaking when the city’s siren went off June 22 to indicate water was topping the dikes. The homes of his two sons were among the river’s victims.
“The truth is, there’s nobody in town that didn’t have family or friends (flooded),” he said. “We were all affected.”
In a recent interview, Gov. Jack Dalrymple said the flood battle in Minot was “almost a surreal experience.” The governor went to the city nearly every day for weeks to attend emergency meetings and brief the public about developments.
“I think they did the main things very right,” he said of Minot city officials. “I really have no regrets about that stage of it. It was a horrible situation, but I think what could be done was done.”
Different than 1997
Murray Sagsveen vividly remembers his entrance into the disaster zone on June 28.
Called upon by the governor to help Minot like he helped Grand Forks after the 1997 Red River flood, the North Dakota National Guard major general knew he would have his hands full as the state’s flood recovery coordinator.
“You saw this water swirling through Minot,” he said in a recent interview. “You saw rooftops sticking out (of the water), and it was just heartbreaking.”
Often asked to compare Minot’s flood to what he experienced in Grand Forks, Sagsveen said there are big differences in the cities’ geography.
“In Grand Forks, you had the entire city flooded. Just about every home was flooded because it’s so flat,” he said. “In Minot, you had the valley flooded, but the north hill and the south hill were not. So you could drive into Minot from the south and everything looked fine until you started to go down into the valley.”
The timing of the floods also made a difference, he said. The Grand Forks flood began in April, whereas Minot’s went into July.
“The environment in Minot was much more hospitable to mold, let’s put it that way,” Sagsveen said. “Some days it was 90 degrees, and the windows were shut on the homes, and you could see the water inside of the homes, so you could just about imagine what was going on up there.”
Grand Forks residents also had more time to work on rebuilding before winter arrived, Sagsveen said.
Sagsveen knew there weren’t enough electrical contractors or inspectors in Minot to fill the needs when rebuilding started. He also knew a flood of construction workers would swoop in from around the country, some with questionable backgrounds.
So the city set up a one-stop shop of state agencies that worked together and licensed hundreds of contracting firms, Sagsveen said. However, the city’s housing shortage from the flood and the oil boom meant there was nowhere for many workers to stay.
The ‘nightmare’ after
Throughout the city, there are heartwarming stories of residents getting help from family, friends and even strangers to help them move on from the flood.
There also are stories of anger and frustration over the difficulty of recovering.
Dan Griffith, 60, said it’s been “a nightmare” finding contractors to help repair his flooded home.
“They have their hands full with other jobs, so they don’t really need yours,” he said.
His neighbor Gene Sauer, 55, said the price-gouging in the city is “through the roof.”
“You stand there, and you’re at a point of complete frustration, and then they hit you with that large amount of money,” he said. “It’s evil, actually.”
As one example, he said his insurance would cover up to $5,000 for electrical work – one aspect of the rebuilding process. The lowest estimate he received was $8,300.
Sauer said he’s reached the point of “absolute mental exhaustion” during the past year. He wouldn’t let his wife look at their destroyed home for the first two months after the flood.
“The initial shock of getting in your home and seeing it was just devastating,” he said. “You just went numb, and then about two weeks later, then it hit you. It started taking its full impact on you.”
The Sauers live in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer while they work on their home. The Griffiths also live in a FEMA trailer and hope to be back in their home by Christmas.
But for some FEMA trailer residents like Jacque Younger, 65, there’s no telling when they will find a home again.
Younger and her husband, Les, rented property that flooded and haven’t been able to find a new place they can afford that accepts pets. She doesn’t think the city has done enough for people who rented before the flood.
“Are we going to have to give up our pets?” said Younger, who has a small dog and a cat. “I mean, have we not given up enough?”
Officials are trying to find a solution for affordable housing, said Mike Wobbema, state flood recovery officer. The problem is land prices have skyrocketed due to the flood and oil boom, Zimbelman said.
Minot and Ward County will receive almost
$77 million in federal community development block grant disaster funding, with $67.5 million going to Minot, the state’s congressional delegation announced earlier this year.
Cindy Hemphill, Minot’s finance director, said the city is putting together a list of possibilities for how to use the money, which includes helping developers provide lower-income housing.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated the 2011 flood caused more than $690 million in infrastructure and property damage in Ward and McHenry counties.
Zimbelman, mayor for the past 10 years, said the total cost is likely higher.
“It was a billion-dollar flood by the time you got done with it,” he said.
The city is moving forward with flood protection, Zimbelman said. A plan that would cover areas from Burlington to Velva is estimated to cost
$820 million, said Waind, who expects that number to climb once protection for areas farther upstream and downstream are added.
“The hope is that we have a plan that will address the protection of everybody in the (river) system, not just designed for one city or one county,” he said.
The local flood risk reduction project consists of levees, flood walls, diversions and property acquisitions, said Jason Westbrock of Bismarck’s Barr Engineering, the lead engineer on the project.
Dalrymple said the state is looking at what additional help may be needed from the 2013 Legislature.
While Minot waits to see how much total state and federal funding it will receive, the city is recovering “slowly but surely,” Zimbelman said.
“I don’t know if you really get back to normal,” said Dan Jonasson, Minot’s public works director. “You get back to a new normal.”
Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.
Federal flood relief for Minot/Ward County
Grants, loans and direct assistance as of May 30:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2011 Souris River flood fight: $27 million (includes funding to date with levee and dam repair funds forthcoming)
• Southern Souris River Basin road repairs, estimated federal share: $49.8 million
• Public assistance for infrastructure damage: $71.3 million (includes Ward County, city of Minot, Minot schools and Minot Park District)
• FEMA individual assistance: $89.8 million
• SBA disaster loans: $224 million
• Community Development Block Grants: $77 million
• Hazard Mitigation Grant Program: estimate pending (statewide estimate is $80 million)
• Economic Development Assistance-Disaster Recovery Grants: pending (national funding: $200 million)
• Minot/Ward County grants, loans and direct assistance: $538.9 million
Source: Office of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
State funding spent or committed for Minot/Ward County
As of May 31
Public response, recovery, mitigation: $23.9 million
• Flood-damaged school infrastructure grant: $500,000
• Land Department flood impact grants: $20 million
• Bank of North Dakota rebuilders loan program: $31.6 million
• Adjutant General city or county assistance to homeowners: $7.9 million
• Water Commission floodway property acquisition and construction: $40 million
• Minot/Ward County assistance to date: $123.9 million
Source: North Dakota Office of Management and Budget