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After the Flood and a FEMA Buy-out, a Rural Town Survives

posted on September 14, 2007

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When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast just over two years ago, flooding caused more than $200 billion in losses, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. However, even in typical years, flooding causes billions of dollars in damage and threatens lives and property in every state. On average, floods kill about 140 people each year and cause $6 billion in property damage.

Some losses, however, aren't measured in death tolls or property damage. In 1993, catastrophic flooding in the Midwest and, in some cases, wiped entire towns off the map.

A similar case can be found in North Dakota, where several floods and a subsequent buyout by the Federal Emergency Management Agency terminated the village of Churchs Ferry. But now, farmers are breathing life into the ghost town. Nancy Crowfoot explains.

For more than 100 years, the center of this northeast North Dakota town was residential. By the year 2000, the same land stood vacant. Today, the land is used to grow organic herbs for restaurants and grocery stores and rhubarb for the wine industry.

Leading up to what may seem an odd series of transitions, was an act of nature and a reaction by those impacted.

Churchs Ferry once had a population of 105. It once also was more than 15 miles from Devils Lake, a body of water seen in brown on this map. But since the Midwest floods of 1993 – as seen in shades of blue --- this so-called "terminal" lake with no river outlet -- has risen more than 26 feet and consumed more than 128,600 acres.

If the water doesn't evaporate or enter the groundwater table, it overflows naturally to the surrounding flat as a pancake landscape ... and often stays there. The lake has swallowed roads, portions of towns and surrounding farmsteads.

If the growth of the lake continued on its natural course, the map area shown in green would be covered with water, threatening the town of Churchs Ferry 15 miles to the north.

With the possibility of future flooding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2000 offered to buy the homes of Churchs Ferry's 105 residents. Those purchased were razed; foundations filled in and left as vacant lots.

Paul Christenson, Mayor, Churchs Ferry, North Dakota: "FEMA was very active in the lake region. They thought that the best help they could do for our town was to buy it out."

Paul Christenson, lifelong resident of Churchs Ferry, and owner of an auto and truck repair shop there, was one of just two homeowners who refused FEMA's buy-out offer. He is now mayor to the current 10 residents.

Paul Christenson, Mayor, Churchs Ferry, North Dakota: "From a business standpoint, they were very good to the people. As a matter of fact some of the financial part they had a special incentive of $17,500 per resident above and beyond any, anything else that was to entice them to leave."

Christenson says the town had not flooded before the buyout or since. No matter, he says, it is difficult for his town to make an economic comeback due to the government's restrictions placed on the land.

Paul Christenson, Mayor, Churchs Ferry, North Dakota: "What FEMA does in their justification for buying property is they attach a deed restriction to that property. You cannot come back and build a home on them again. Ah, you're really restricted with what you do with that property."

Christenson said the land cannot have a permanent structure on it and can basically be used for agriculture or recreation. He was able to develop an RV campground behind City Hall, but little else remains on Main Street besides one bar and the post office.

Paul Christenson, Mayor, Churchs Ferry, North Dakota: "And so you know, they've strangled us here. They've actually destroyed, completely destroyed our tax base."

While the FEMA buy-out seven years ago is still a sensitive topic for Christenson ... two people who moved here in 2002, Holly and Barry Mawby, and are taking what some perceive as a lemon ... and making lemonade.

Holly Mawby, gardendwellers Farm: "We've got street lights and we've, the roads are maintained very well, our mayor and City Council do that."

What the Mawby's wanted to do was one of the few things allowed by FEMA's land use restrictions –farming. Over 2 1/2 blocks – or 2 acres -- they grow 14 different herbs and 3,000 pounds of rhubarb.

Holly Mawby, gardendwellers Farm: "We looked at a lot of farmsteads throughout the region. And the one thing that we found was many of them were either difficult to get to or difficult to find. And we knew if we wanted to have classes and events and have people come and visit, we needed to be very easy to find. And so Churchs Ferry right on the 281 and two highways was perfect."

The location may be perfect, but to abide by the government-imposed restrictions of using no footings or foundations, the couple built a restroom for their visitors on a floating concrete slab .... and a tool shed on a dirt floor.

These are small concessions for the first time farmers who still both hold down fulltime, off-farm, jobs.

Barry Mawby, gardendwellers Farm: "The lease arrangement was set up on a 40 year program. Because that's how Paul wanted it. The mayor of the town wanted it. "We paid $250 for it. Period. One time fee."

It may seem a very low price for real estate, but Christenson says it's an arrangement that's beneficial to both parties.

Paul Cristenson, Mayor, Churchs Ferry, North Dakota: "In the mindset of what else that property could ever be used for. When you can't put a home or a business or a structure on it. It has, it has, ya know, it has no value. And so if someone can make a little bit of money off it and keep it cleaned up and kept it nice looking as they have, I guess that's, that's, that's with what we're left with that's as good as we can do."

In the last year, the Mawby's have doubled production from 500 pounds of herbs in 2006 to 1,000 pounds this year. The couple also has increased their number of grocery and restaurant clients.

Tracey Anderson, Produce Manager, Marketplace Food and Drug: "They're really excited about it and I am as well. It's gonna be very exciting and uh, hopefully it will go really well. I'll take everything she has. We sell a lot of herbs. We sell a lot."

While the Mawbys focus on expanding their market, they say they also want to help keep Churchs Ferry history -- literally alive – in a garden of plants that once graced the homes here. Many of the plants were donated by former residents of Churchs Ferry.

Holly Mawby, gardenwellers Farm: "Part of the mission has always been to bring people back to keep the residents that had to move away, give them a place to come back to."

The town may never see the population or business traffic it once had. But the Mawbys hope they are among the 10 residents who will at least keep the Churchs Ferry on the map.

There is just one lingering question/issue lapping at the doorstep of Churchs Ferry. Will Devils Lake ever flood enough to take the town under?

Barry Mawby, gardendwellers Farm: "It is still a risk of losing due to the water, but for each year it's high and dry, we're very happy."

For Market to Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


Tags: agriculture crops disaster relief disasters farmers farms floods news North Dakota rural