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Ryan Bakken, Forum Communications, Published December 03 2012

Ryan Bakken: Norwegians made Northwood not New Orleans

GRAND FORKS - Northwood, N.D., has the highest percentage of Norwegian American ancestry of any community in the United States.

That high ratio of Norwegians explains the town’s rapid and complete recovery from its 2007 tornado.

So says Curt Stofferahn, a UND sociology professor who led a study and penned an article about the recovery that will be published in the Journal of the Community Development Society in the spring.

OK, so the Journal of the Community Development Society isn’t quite Time or Newsweek.

And, OK, giving all of the recovery credit to the lefse-munchers may be an oversimplification of Northwood’s success story. (Full disclosure: I’m Norwegian.)

However, a study of newspaper articles and government reports and interviews with 16 Northwood residents by Stofferahn and 10 of his students back the conclusion.

The locals “defined themselves as self-reliant, independent, hardy, tough Norwegians with a strong work ethic who wouldn’t give up to adversity,” Stofferahn said. “It’s built into their culture.

“Like the city’s slogan said: ‘It takes more than an F-4 (tornado) to keep us down.’ ”

Being Norwegian wasn’t the sole reason for the success, however. Being similar was, too.

“With so many having farm backgrounds, they had more self-reliant skills,” Stofferahn said. “And the people were so intertwined socially in clubs, organizations, school, churches and families that they got along with each other and trusted each other.

“There was very little controversy and conflict because of the high degree of trust from those relationships. This is a town where residents don’t lock their doors or their cars.”

No Katrina

This is in sharp contrast to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005. In addition to having Michael “You’re Doing a Heckuva Job Brownie” Brown as the FEMA director, instead of James Lee Witt, New Orleans’ diversity played a role in the havoc.

“If you live in a very diverse community, it’s more difficult because people don’t trust each other as much,” Stofferahn said. “In small towns, people can have arguments that don’t turn into conflicts because of the trust.”

Northwood also is in contrast to Grand Forks after the 1997 flood, although it didn’t come close to New Orleans’ proportions. Anger was in full display at a citywide meeting at the Chester Fritz Auditorium soon after the flood.

“Grand Forks is not small enough to know people as well as Northwood could,” Stofferahn said. “But after the initial anger and grief, Grand Forks settled into a pattern.”

Marcy Douglas, the Northwood city administrator in 2007 and the disaster recovery point person, reviewed the paper and said it’s an accurate take.

“It’s highly complimentary of us,” she said. “But that’s how the people are here. They take care of each other, neighbor-to-neighbor. They got together and got things done.”

Even without Douglas’ stamp of approval and the UND professor’s academic finding, we already knew this about the likes of Northwood, Lake Wobegon and other small outposts, right?

“Yes, it’s a painful elaboration of the obvious,” Stofferahn said with a laugh.

Obvious? Yes. Painful? No. We need to be reminded occasionally about how lucky we are, even if it takes an F-4 to deliver the news.