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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published June 22 2013

A long, slow recovery after devastating Minot flood

MINOT, N.D. – Two years ago, Jennifer and Ryan Kelley evacuated their 1924, two-story home after city officials said water from the Souris River might break through the city’s levee.

Jennifer, then a chef at a local restaurant, and Ryan, a senior airman in the Air Force, then spent a few days with a friend, but water never broke through.

They were given the green light to return and began to remodel their two-room basement and move in a friend who was going to attend Minot State University.

A week later, on June 22, 2011, the shrill sound of emergency sirens filled the air as water breached the levee that was only steps away from the Kelleys’ home, and the couple had to seek higher ground as 10 feet of water eventually filled the home.

They returned home a week later.

“It just made us sick to our stomach to be down here,” Jennifer said last week while walking around the basement of her home. The rest of the home was demolished in mid-May.

She said returning home after the flood, the smell was unbearable. Personal possessions were strewn throughout the house, water had swept away their one-stall garage and the home they bought only a year earlier was completely ruined.

“I don’t know what we own anymore. We got rid of half of our stuff, and the rest is in boxes,” she said. “It was kind of a repeat; we’re both Christians and are used to praying and being OK with not having answers. We just pray we make the right choices afterwards with a lot that needs to be dealt with.”

Now, it’s two years after that same water from the Souris River devastated more than 4,100 properties in Minot, causing an estimated $690 million in damage.

Near the Souris River, flood-damaged homes still have boarded-up windows and doors as knee-high weeds inundate properties and pieces of houses and fences remain in the yards.

Recent numbers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency show there are still 90 homeowners living in homes in disrepair and 241 families still in temporary housing units.

Dena and Thomas Penton were flooded out of their mobile home park in 2011.

They bought a flood-damaged home five months after the 2011 flood for $27,000 and now live out of their camper behind the home.

Since they didn’t own the home before the flood, they do not qualify for any flood relief money and are now slowly repairing the home with cash as they wait to lock in a bank loan.

“If the bank gives us a loan, we’ll get it done quick,” Thomas Penton said. “If that doesn’t work, it’ll be a long time.”

The couple hope to secure a loan soon to reconstruct the second floor and move in as they slowly work on the rest of the home, which has been gutted. Originally from Louisiana, the couple left the South for North Dakota because the stress of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana was wearing on them. They still maintain a Louisiana residence, which received minor damage during the hurricane.

“Every year, we freak out about it flooding,” Dena Penton said last week.

The past two years haven’t been so easy for the Kelleys, who have struggled to obtain money to rebuild.

The two say they have been denied disaster relief several times because they are unable to meet certain requirements.

“When you think you have an answer, 10 other doors shut in your face,” Jennifer said.

She said they waited for the city to move ahead with its initial plan to buy out many of the flood-stricken homes along the river for a permanent flood protection project. But it took seven months to find out the city went with another option.

Minot City Finance Director Cindy Hemphill said that when the state Water Commission’s preliminary engineering started, the city thought the flood control project would follow the natural flow of the river, and it would buy out many homes. As engineering progressed, officials determined that wasn’t the best plan and diversions would be a better route, and the city would not have to acquire as many homes.

The couple say they turned to a bank for help but were turned away. Then they planned to sell the $122,000 home for $25,000, but that deal fell through.

“At this point, we just want some closure,” she said.

“It’s our home, but if we have to, we can find another home somewhere else.”

They finally received a grant from the Air Force to pay off their mortgage and qualified for a community development block grant through the city.

Jennifer said they were homeless for seven months.

“It wasn’t for a lack of trying. We looked every possible way for money we could think of,” she said.

Hemphill said residents, such as the Kelleys, have been resilient over the past two years.

“There are still individuals that don’t have a plan,” she said. “But citizens have done what they need to do to get back in their homes.”

She said the city has been doing everything it can to continue helping people still living in temporary homes or trying to rebuild.

“Because of a lack of housing before the flood, many didn’t have a choice but to go back into their home,” she said.

The city has been flexible over the past two years to accommodate flood victims. Hemphill said the city has not charged people for construction permits and has been the most lenient by allowing pre-built homes into various neighborhoods, which is prohibited by city ordinance.

But looking back on the past two years, she said the city could have handled the situation differently.

“Every day we go back and look at what we could have done different,” she said. “But under the circumstances, we did the best we could.”

Hemphill and city Public Information Officer Bob Lindee continue to hear from residents wanting something done with their homes, or their neighbors’ damaged homes, with most wanting to rebuild.

Flood victims “tell us they want the city to make sure they can still live here,” Lindee said.

But the city couldn’t have handled the flood by itself, Hemphill said, and the state helped out a lot.

“It was such a horrific event, it definitely had the eye of the governor,” she said.

As of Wednesday, the state has appropriated $208 million toward flood relief efforts in Ward County, including $47.5 million in low-interest reconstruction loans, $37.4 million for property acquisition and reconstruction, $5 million for repairs at Minot State University and $2.7 million put toward the state fairgrounds.

The Kelleys, with $185,000 in grant money, started deconstructing their home in mid-May with the help of volunteers.

“I got in line with a sledgehammer,” she said. “I was pretty excited about that. It meant I am getting a new house.”

As part of the grant the Kelleys received, they will get to rebuild, choosing from five floor plans.

They hope to meet with a contractor by mid-July, and are able to put up to an 1,800-square-foot home on their lot.

Jennifer has already told the contractors, “I don’t care if you put a dog house with carpet, I don’t care, this is our home.”