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Forgotten flood

 

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 Dakota.

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 asks.

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 back.”

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.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson, courtesy www.alertnet.org 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Evacuation was tough. But the real hard part is putting it all back to-gether again.”
Ron Bieri,
resident of Minot, North Dakota

 

 

 

 

 

 



Eldred Ames, 88, stands on the deck of a temporary housing unit, provided by the FEMA. Photo: ©Jill Schramm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“There’s going to be a lot of houses built, but can people afford them?”
Curt Zimbelman, mayor of Minot, North Dakota

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


The sign on the Red Cross building is reflected in flood waters near the Souris River in Minot, North Dakota in June 2011.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson, courtesy www.alertnet.org

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, he says.

“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 this spring.

“What we need to drive home now is that this is just the beginning for Minot,” Mayor Zimbelman says.

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