As water ebbs in Minot, thoughts of recovery

Debris floats up to a home for sale from the Souris River flood waters in the Minot, N.D., neighborhood of Oak Park Saturday, June 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

June 27, 2011 7:41:38 AM PDT
Gus and Jane Krueger spent part of their 58th wedding anniversary in a McDonald's restaurant, sipping chocolate milkshakes as a government agent provided a crash course in applying for assistance to salvage their flood-ravaged house.

Like most of the thousands of homeowners in sections of Minot overrun by the Souris River, the Kruegers carried no flood insurance and acknowledged feeling lost as they pondered what to do next. Still, they were determined to rebuild and carry on.

"It's our home," Jane Krueger, 76, said Sunday while waiting to meet with the Federal Emergency Management Agency official. "It's where we belong."

As the river hit its record-shattering peak and began a slow retreat, residents looked ahead to an arduous rebuilding job while continuing to deal with short-term obstacles such as sharing the homes of friends and relatives, traffic tie-ups and an advisory to boil drinking water.

"We know that we have a tremendous recovery effort coming, and even as we talk about how to beat this water back over the next few days, we have already started talking about how the recovery will be managed and organized," Gov. Jack Dalrymple said.

Just 375 of the 4,000 homes in flooded areas were insured for floods, FEMA spokesman John Ashton said. Many owners said they had been led to believe it was unnecessary after a 1969 flood led to construction of levees and straightening of the river channel.

Mike and Jodi Picard checked with neighbors when moving into their house less than two years ago and found that just one had flood insurance. The river was a quarter-mile away, and the prevailing opinion was that their subdivision was no longer in the floodplain.

"Now you really kick yourself for not having it," said Jodi Picard, 44.

The couple stood on a bridge overlooking the swollen river, straining for a glimpse of their house in a distant cul-de-sac. It appeared water was knee-deep on the main floor.

They were staying with relatives in the area but insisted their departure was temporary. After the water recedes, they'll pump the basement dry, tear out drywall and insulation and make needed repairs.

The Souris topped out Sunday nearly 2 feet below projections heading into the weekend, and it appeared damage might not extend beyond the homes and businesses that took on water Friday. Officials warned against overconfidence until the river fell enough to take the pressure off levees. The National Weather Service projected the river would decline 2 feet by midweek.

State lawmakers probably will consider offering flood relief during a special session this fall. North Dakota has $386 million in a rainy-day fund, and $136 million in a school-aid fund could be diverted to the many communities touched by floodwaters this year. Both are fattened by revenues from an oil boom that generates $1 billion a year in tax money and has provided a shield during the recession.

FEMA has approved individual rebuilding assistance for Burleigh County, home to the capital of Bismarck, and Ward County, where Minot is located. Dalrymple is pushing to expand it to 20 other counties and the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Spirit Lake Sioux reservations.

The assistance is capped at a little more than $30,000, but Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said a more realistic figure is $7,000 to $8,000 - the typical amounts provided to victims of severe flooding in Nashville, Tenn., a year ago.

FEMA and the federal Small Business Administration will offer loan and grant programs, too. The Bank of North Dakota, the nation's only state-owned bank, already offers low-interest loans up to $500,000 to businesspeople, farmers and ranchers in places the president has declared a disaster area.

Eric Hardmeyer, the Bank of North Dakota's president, said the bank learned valuable lessons about administering disaster aid from the epic Red River Valley floods of 1997, which swamped the city of Grand Forks, knocked out its sewer and water systems and forced the evacuation of more than 50,000 people.

"We found that we needed to let the federal programs get in and do their business before we found out where we should play," Hardmeyer said. "Their pockets are deeper, and they're more experienced at that than we are."

Pat Owens, who was mayor of Grand Forks when the flood hit in April 1997, said federal agencies were critical to the city's recovery. They set up a one-stop shop for aid programs in Grand Forks' Civic Auditorium.

"That was a salvation," Owens said. "People would not know how to even begin trying to bring their lives back, and that gave them a place to go."

Two federal assistance centers were opening this week in Minot and another in Bismarck, Dalrymple said.

But some occupants of damaged or destroyed homes were still dealing with the shock while struggling to look ahead.

Les Younger, a retired Air Force veteran who maintained aircraft weapons systems at Minot Air Force Base, and his wife, Jacque, a seamstress, said they did not buy flood insurance because they thought their home was far enough from the river.

Rebuilding "is going to be very tough, because we don't have a lot of savings," Jacque Younger said.

Many said their religious faith would get them through the disaster.

John and Deb Walker held each other tightly during a Sunday service at a local hotel that united three Evangelical Lutheran congregations. The couple married just two months ago and moved into Deb Walker's 55-year-old house, which easily survived previous floods but now is covered almost to the roof.

They said they weren't sure what would become of the structure but intended to remain in the Minot area, which Deb Walker described as their "physical foundation."

"But our spiritual foundation is found in Christ," she said. "In times like these, we ... put our trust in him and let him be our guide."