The phenomenon of forgotten disasters is not unique to developing
countries. The 2011 flood in Minot, North Dakota in the US
Midwest, is a case in point.
NAMED ONE OF the United States’ ‘best old-house
neighbourhoods’ by a home-improvement magazine only
one year ago, historic Eastwood Park in Minot, North Dakota,
now looks haggard in the aftermath of a summer flood that
inundated much of the city.
Since the Souris River crested in June 2011 — displacing
11,000 residents in the Minot area, flooding 4,100 homes
and businesses — David and Pat Lehner have worked feverishly
to preserve original woodwork and leaded-glass windows in
their ravaged three-storey house, built in 1908.
“If you don’t discipline yourself to keep coming
and doing something, it’s too easy to just sit back
and let it overwhelm you,” David Lehner says. “I
can see where a lot of people give up.”
Out on the prairie
Recovery has been slow and outside resources few for Minot,
a city of about 41,000 inhabitants in a part of the country
often considered remote. Not far from the Canadian border,
Minot is home to a US Air Force base and is one of the
larger cities in the sparsely populated state of North
Hundreds of kilometres from a major metropolitan centre,
Minot’s disaster grabbed media attention only briefly.
A nation that stood aghast at scenes of houses with water
to the roofs quickly cast its attention elsewhere when flood
waters began receding. Volunteers who came to muck out and
gut houses retreated ahead of winter, which can be notoriously
harsh in North Dakota.
“People around here are tapped out,” says Curt
Zimbelman, a banker and Minot’s mayor. “They
have given what they can give.”
Somehow, he says, Minot needs to capture the nation’s
attention again. “We have been forgotten by the national
media,” he adds. “People aren’t thinking
of us like they were before, and I don’t think there’s
any less need now than there was immediately after the flood.”
Zimbelman believes the city’s recovery depends on
volunteers to help rebuild, along with federal and state
government money for flood protection. But Minot’s
flood, sandwiched between spring tornadoes and autumn hurricanes,
was just one of many disasters vying for funds from an already
overstretched federal budget last year.
Nor did people outside the state remember Minot as the new
year began, when fewer than a third of residents, mainly
those whose houses suffered the least extensive damage, were
back in their homes. A construction boom is expected to get
most residents back in before the end of 2012. However, the
flood protection plan, once finalized, will determine who
can rebuild and who can’t.
After the rush
Sitting on the edge of one of the largest oil fields in
the United States, Minot was changing even before the flood.
Companies and people flocked to the wind-swept prairie
for a chance to make their fortunes in the oil under the
wheat fields and rangeland. While the rush overwhelmed
the area’s smaller towns, Minot prospered as the
region’s social and retail centre.
The rest of the US worried about house foreclosures during
a recession, but in Minot, home prices escalated as demand
exceeded the ability to build. Once the flood came, the housing
crunch became an all-out crisis.
After ten weeks in a Red Cross shelter, Justin and Sonja
Neubauer moved into a three-bedroom, Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA) unit in October. They were thrilled to have
a place of their own, but their weeks of displacement, material
losses and continued future uncertainty took a toll.
Sonja Neubauer’s hair began falling out from the stress.
The one thing that brings her peace of mind is that her children
are happily settled. “This is home and you have to
make it comfortable to live in for yourself and for your
kids,” she says.
FEMA expects people to find permanent homes by December
2012. The Neubauers, like many residents of the temporary
units, are sceptical. Hardest hit by the flood were the older,
more affordable homes. “There’s going to be a
lot of houses built, but can people afford them?” Zimbelman
Bringing people back
Because North Dakota’s economy has flourished on oil
and agriculture, budget surpluses enable the state to help
repair flooded homes and plan for future flood protection.
Although some discouraged flood victims have moved away,
North Dakota’s recovery coordinator, Major General
Murray Sagsveen, says using state money to rehabilitate flooded
houses could revive the community’s confidence.
“The important thing is to show momentum this summer,” he
says. “If you show that the neighbourhood is being
rebuilt and you show a vibrancy, then the people may come
Retirees Ron and Jane Bieri say adrenalin-fed activity kept
anxiety at bay during the evacuation and clean-up. Now alone
in their FEMA unit, the slow process of rebuilding their
home of 21 years is harder to endure.
“Evacuation was tough. But the real hard part is putting
it all back together again,” says Ron Bieri.
The flood has been toughest on the elderly, says Ken Kitzman,
president of a community foundation that raised US$ 7.3 million
for individual assistance. He sees elderly residents dazed,
with no place to go and no family nearby to help. In a FEMA
unit across the street from the Bieri’s, Eldred Ames,
88, is rebuilding his home of 45 years. His children do the
work on weekends.
“I don’t know what is going to happen, but I
am going to stick it out,” Ames says. “This is
the only place I want to be.”
By Jill Schramm
Jill Schramm is a reporter for the Minot Daily News in Minot, North Dakota.
A neighbourhood of newer houses on the south-west side of Minot,
North Dakota, are seen submerged in flood waters, forcing
the evacuation of thousands of homes.
Fredrickson, courtesy www.alertnet.org
was tough. But the real hard part is putting it all
back to-gether again.”
resident of Minot, North Dakota
Eldred Ames, 88, stands on the deck of a temporary housing unit, provided by
the FEMA. Photo: ©Jill Schramm
to be a lot of houses built, but can people afford
Curt Zimbelman, mayor of Minot, North
The sign on the Red Cross building is reflected in flood
waters near the Souris River in Minot, North Dakota in
Photo: ©REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson, courtesy
Rebuilding with resilience
When a major flood 15 years ago devastated the city of Grand
Forks, about 320 kilometres east of Minot, heavy media attention
and millions of dollars in federal aid followed. Today, Grand
Forks thrives, with beautiful greenways and a new levee system.
Trevor Riggen, senior director of disaster services with
the American Red Cross in Washington DC, says attention and
resources have a psychological effect that impacts resiliency
against future disasters. In Grand Forks, the tangible result
of attention and resources was a flood mitigation project,
“If the attention doesn’t bring the psyche of
the community up to where they are thinking, ‘What
do we do next time? How do we have a stronger community?’,
they never build the resilience they need,” says Riggen,
who suggests getting corporations and other donors thinking
about how they can help in the long run.
Mason Hollifield, Red Cross chapter director in Grand Forks
during the city’s flood, says the chapter was part
of the long-term solution. Unlike Minot, the Grand Forks
chapter had money for a role in rebuilding and providing
individual assistance to the most needy.
Hollifield says that while national Red Cross resources
can help, the battle is won or lost on the strength of local
volunteers and partnerships with community and government
organizations. “Any disaster is going to start local
and it’s going to end local,” he says. “You
need those local resources.”
In Minot, the flood revealed a need to increase volunteer
numbers and training levels, says Allan McGeough, director
of Minot’s Mid-Dakota chapter. Fortunately, the national
organization provided enough resources to fill the gaps when
the chapter became overwhelmed with sheltering, providing
meals and distributing clean-up kits, he says.
Knowing a repeat on the scale of the 2011 flood is statistically
unlikely, the chapter repaired its flooded building and readied
volunteers to respond to potential smaller-scale flooding
“What we need to drive home now is that this is just
the beginning for Minot,” Mayor Zimbelman says.