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Published March 24, 2009, 12:00 AM

McFeely: Oak Grove-area homeowners taking another gamble in ’09

It’s the obvious question to ask a mud-caked Steve Poitras, now that the Red River is rising steadily and rapidly an easy stone’s toss from the back of his house: Why didn’t you leave after 1997?

It’s the obvious question to ask a mud-caked Steve Poitras, now that the Red River is rising steadily and rapidly an easy stone’s toss from the back of his house:

Why didn’t you leave after 1997?

“Well, when we had a lot of neighbors taking the buyouts after they said they were going to stay, I asked my wife if we should stay,” Poitras said Monday. “She said, ‘Yes!’ And if you think about it, by staying we’ve gotten 12 more years in our house.”

There was a pause.

“Can it really go to 40 feet?”

The Poitras home at 135 South Terrace Drive N. in Fargo is one of just four houses left on the block after the 39.6-foot crest in ’97. The street, bordering the south side of Fargo Oak Grove Lutheran School, was devastated during that flood and became a target for city buyouts. Eleven homes have since disappeared.

The remaining homeowners have been left to fight the Red on their own. Oak Grove, itself inundated in ’97, has a modern floodwall protecting most of its campus to 42 feet. The city soon will build an earthen dike down the middle of South Terrace to protect the rest of the campus and other homes in the neighborhood. Poitras and his three neighbors will be left on the outside of the dike.

There’s really no choice, since the backyards of the homes fall sharply toward the river, leaving little high ground on which to pile a massive amount of clay.

“We’ve been outside before, in 2001 and 2006, and come out of it OK,” Poitras said.

If the river hits 40 feet, coming out of this OK might take nothing less than a minor miracle – something many Valley residents will need in the next week. A marking on Oak Grove’s brick and concrete flood wall shows the level of the ’97 flood. If you stand at that point and look across the street at the Poitras house, it indicates the water would be well above the foundation and lapping at the top of the front stoop.

“Forty feet would just about get to our upper level,” Poitras said. “One good thing is, this is tremendous motivation to clean the basement.”

Humor helps. It helps alleviate the stress of the frantic sandbagging effort Monday by Poitras and 100-odd Oak Grove student volunteers. The city dumped hundreds of sand bags on the boulevard and by 4 p.m. the muddy, sweaty, soaked-to-the-bone kids – still laughing and being silly, by the way – had constructed a dike to 41 feet around the front of the home. They’ll return this morning in hopes of ringing the house.

“Bottomless gratitude is what we have for these kids. The Oak Grove folks are putting their Christian principles into practice,” Poitras said. “Obviously we wouldn’t have a chance without them.”

A yellow canoe, the same one the Poitrases used to get to and from their house for a couple of weeks after the ’97 crest, sits in the front yard. It will be used again.

“We’re going to stay as long as we feel like we’re winning and holding off the water,” Poitras said. “But if our dike gives way, I suppose we’d have to give it up.”

When one looks at the massive amount of water rising not far away, the task looks beyond daunting.

That leads to the next obvious question.

If you’re offered a buyout this time around, will you take it?

“We’d consider it, just like we did last time,” Poitras said. “But if we beat this thing, I imagine we’ll stay.

“We’ve been here going on 31 years. This is our little enclave. We’re hoping for the best. We’re hoping for the best.”


Forum columnist Mike McFeely can be heard from 1-2 p.m. Monday through Friday on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5580 or mmcfeely@forumcomm.com. McFeely’s blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/mcfeely

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