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Long road ahead for recovery from largest disaster ever in Minot

posted on November 4, 2011

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Remnants of some of the worst flooding in North Dakota state history are still visible in Minot five months after the Mouse River escaped its banks. 

It's hard to imagine this tiny river, that begins in Saskatchewan, and dips into North Dakota briefly before returning to Canada, could inflict damage on such an enormous scale.  

Prolonged flooding in June and July destroyed more than 4,000 homes, swept away dozens of businesses and caused more than $1 billion in damage. 

Three of the four dams regulating the river’s flow are in Canada. Their outflows are restricted to a maximum of 5,000 cubic feet per second.  But at the height of last summer's floods, the Lake Darling Dam, 15 miles north of Minot, released nearly 30,000 cubic feet per second.

Now, officials on both sides of the border are reviewing management plans, and the daunting tasks of clean-up and rebuilding are left as stark reminders of the power of Mother Nature. 

Evidence of record flooding is scattered along the banks of the river, but it is on the other side of the levees where the flood's wrath is most apparent.

Thousands of homes are uninhabitable and piles of sandbags remain as silent reminders of the epic flood. 

Jim Olson's home is one of the condemned structures.  He's spent much of his time since the waters receded repairing houses belonging to his children.  This one, belonging to his daughter, was inundated for 30 days by waters from a breeched levee. 

Though skilled with a crowbar, Olson's real calling is as a broadcaster.  And as News Director of Minot's only fully-staffed local television station, he helped warn local residents about the looming danger.

Curt Zimbelman: Mayor, Minot, North Dakota: “Based on current predictions, we will crest 7 feet higher than 1969. And about 5 feet higher than the ever recorded goiong back to the flood of 1881.”

Initially given 48 hours to evacuate their homes, residents quickly moved everything they could to higher ground.  But as the water rose, the time-frame became shorter, until just before 1pm on June 22nd, emergency sirens announced mandatory evacuations were in effect... five hours earlier than predicted.  

Jim Olson, KXMC-TV News Director: “That was very surreal.  I was on the news set with my son Perry.  Both of us with houses here in the flood zone.  Not that we were worried about. And so we had done that and so the sirens went off and we really said nothing for quite awhile and then just hearing it and knowing what it meant for the people was really moving.”

KXMC crews documented entire neighborhoods submerged, and water up to the roofs of homes where just hours before, National Guard soldiers had gone door to door alerting residents to imminent danger.    

At the height of the flood, Olson's skeleton crew was on the on-the-air for 171 consecutive hours.   And in the five months since the disaster, KXMC has continued its coverage of Minot's struggle to recover... a struggle Olson knows all too well.

Jim Olson: “You have two choices you can either say I am going to fix my house up.  I am going to accept this SBA low interest loan at two and a half or three percent and thus I will have both my original mortgage and a new mortgage from the SBA that might total one and a half or two times the value of my house.  But I am going to do it and I am now committed to staying here for at least 12 or however many years until the value of the house rises enough to equal the value of the - the loans. So you are committed to long term.  The other choice is to just simply walk away from your loan and - and if you do that you are really committed to leaving the area because there is no place to live here with the housing shortage that we have.“   

Ultimately, some residents opted not to rebuild.  But that was never a consideration for the North Dakota State Fair.  And in the hours preceding the flood, General Manager Renae Korslien took steps to protect some of the fair's most important structures. 

Korslien called in help from Fargo to build a 14 foot wall around the State Fair Center and the newly rebuilt  Grandstand.

 Renae Korslien: “This place was buzzing, but we only had two days to do in. Hard work, no sleep, but it did get done and the dikes were 14 feet high and the dike around the grandstand, we ended up taking up the race track because there was no dirt. We couldn’t find dirt and the traffic was horrendous with, with trucks and so we had to dig up the track.”

While some of the infrastructure narrowly escaped the floods, the Fair itself was a casualty.  Since the waters didn't fully recede until the day the fair was originally scheduled to open, Korslien had little choice but to cancel one of North Dakota's premier events.

Renae Korslien: “I have been with this fair for I think this would have been 37th fair and there was a lot of emotions.  The assistant manager has been here that long.  Many of us have - have given kind of our life has grown up here and you bet.  We fought hard to save this.  This is - this is our heart.”

While recovering from a flood of this magnitude is one thing, paying for it is another. Heading into a special legislative session next week, State Senator Tony Grindberg acknowledges the issues are complex.   

Sen. Tony Grindberg: “I would imagine that, you know, we will have requests coming to help repair part of the state fair and so those things are just a natural discussion.  If we start down the path of having our own state FEMA what does that mean? And - and so I think at the end of the day we are going to find a proper balance that - between the fund raising that has gone on to help residents, the federal government, and what role is appropriate for the state to assist the rebuilding of Minot and so we are not setting up our own agency for future disasters.”

One thing that is not a disaster in North Dakota these days is the economy. A thriving agricultural sector and an oil boom in the western part of the state have resulted in a $1 billion state budget surplus and the unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation. 

Next week, we'll travel to Williston, where billions of barrels of crude in the Bakken formation are creating an economic gusher.   

For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager. 

Tags: agriculture diaster environment FEMA flooding floods government levees news policy recovery SBA