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Published May 31, 2009, 12:00 AM

Return to earth: More than 300 homes await buyouts in Cass, Clay counties

Jessie Swanson, a 73-year-old widow living off Social Security, still mows the lawn and tills the garden on her 16-acre property in Oakport Township north of Moorhead.

By: Kevin Schnepf, INFORUM

Jessie Swanson, a 73-year-old widow living off Social Security, still mows the lawn and tills the garden on her 16-acre property in Oakport Township north of Moorhead.

“I’m a farm girl,” Swanson says.

But the nearby Red River has put her house and lifestyle in danger. Rising to record heights this spring, the Red spilled over its banks and across Wall Street, reaching Swanson’s home for the first time in the 43 years she’s lived there.

Unable to sandbag her home in time, water filled her basement. Now more than ever, Swanson worries about being bought out – just as her 12 neighbors were since the 1997 flood.

Like so many areas along either side of the Red River, the lots where Swanson used to visit neighbors now sit vacant.

Nearly 200 homes in Cass and Clay counties have been bought out since the 1997 flood. More than 300 have expressed interest in buyouts this spring.

There will be more, depending on what type of master plan for permanent flood protection is drawn up for both sides of the river.

Government officials are convinced that the voluntary buyouts are beneficial for flood protection. In some cases, levees or dikes can be built where houses once stood to protect the rest of the community.

Part of a proposed diking project to protect flood-ravaged Oakport Township would run through a hayfield that is part of Swanson’s property. Unless she can get more than the $247,000 she was offered a few years ago, Swanson is hanging on to her property.

“I think people are kind of waiting, holding their breath to see what I’m going to do,” said Swanson, who says her property was paid for 20 years ago. “I can’t afford to move. I’ve looked, but I can’t find a piece of property that even comes close to this. The houses are always nice, but there is no land. I’m a farm girl.”

Emotion vs. benefit

Lisa Vatnsdal understands that a home is much more than a house.

“You are dealing with history and people’s memories,” said Vatnsdal, Moorhead’s neighborhood services manager, who is experiencing her fourth round of buyouts this spring. “It’s a very emotional experience. It’s a very surreal experience when you drive by a lot and the house isn’t there.”

Like the home Dennis and Diane Wiesenborn used to live in on Elm Street in Fargo’s Ridgewood neighborhood. It was one of 17 Ridgewood homes the city bought out after the 1997 flood.

With the houses gone, the area is now part of a diking project slated to be completed this summer that will protect north Fargo near the Veterans Affairs hospital. At the time, the buyouts didn’t make much sense to the Wiesenborns – especially when their house went undamaged after the 1997 flood.

“We were just in the way of the proposed dike … that made it all the more frustrating,” said Diane Wiesenborn, who said she’s glad they didn’t have to fight this year’s flood. “Looking back on it (the buyouts), it clearly needed to be done.”

Ridgewood is one of numerous examples where buyouts after the 1997 flood helped with fighting this spring’s flood.

Eight homes in the River Oaks neighborhood of south Moorhead were bought out after 1997. Sitting on a peninsula jutting into the Red River, these homes endured repeated flooding.

“You can see where eventually the economic benefit of acquiring the properties and just taking them out of harm’s way would be appropriate from a public policy standpoint,” Vatnsdal said. “Even in ’97, the engineering department indicated that the homes we took out from this area in ’93 and ’94 helped with the flood fight in ’97.”

With more houses gone, city officials in Fargo and Moorhead had to worry less about neighborhoods being protected with temporary sandbag dikes constructed as high as 15 feet.

“When you start asking sandbags to work above five or six feet, you’re stretching it,” said Fargo City Engineer Mark Bittner. “That’s why we bought them out – because we couldn’t protect them.”

Having more homes along the river gone this spring meant less stress on the city’s sanitary system, according to Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral. Sanitary flows usually measure 12 million gallons a day. During the 1997 flood, there were 25 million gallons a day.

“We didn’t have nearly that much in 2009,” Zavoral said. “So, if you have those homes in your lower-lying areas, the sewers are going to be compromised sooner if you can’t protect them. In our minds, those homes we bought out were quite significant for this flood fight.”

Live and learn

Clay County Planner Tim Magnuson says the 1997 flood was “a good dress rehearsal” for this spring’s flood.

For government officials overseeing buyout programs, a flood as devastating as 1997’s educated them about where to find the funds and where to use the funds.

It was such a good rehearsal, Irv Rustad says his Lake Agassiz Regional Council staff is more than one year ahead of acquiring funding for Cass County buyouts compared to 1997.

That caught the attention of an official from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which last year was devastated with its own flood.

“They wondered how we got our applications done so fast because they were still waiting for things to happen from their 2008 flood,” said Rustad, who has been the council director since 1976. “I just told them, ‘We’ve been through this before.’ ”

Rustad, like other officials dealing with buyouts, has learned time is of the essence. Flood victims are often faced with the dilemma: Do they rebuild or wait to see if they can be bought out?

“It’s not a pleasant situation for any family,” Rustad said. “I would want to know as soon as I could what my future looks like.”

Perhaps one of the most puzzling pieces of the buyout programs are the limitations that come with federal assistance. When using money from FEMA’s hazard mitigation grant program, officials are not allowed to build any kind of permanent structure – including a dike or levee – on that property.

Rustad wishes FEMA would allow an exception to their rule. He says a flood in the flat “table-top” land of the Red River Valley is a lot different than a flood in valleys of the Appalachian Mountains.

“A two-foot dike (here) means a big difference for protection for a long ways away,” Rustad said.

Show me the money

Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman would love to see the day when no more buyouts are needed.

But with the adoption of a new 100-year flood plain map expected early next year and the final plan for the Army Corps of Engineers long-range flood protection expected late next year, more buyouts are on the horizon.

“We’re going to have several hundred properties that will be in the 100-year flood plain that weren’t in it previously,” Zimmerman said. “Quite frankly, over time, I expect we are going to see more properties that may want to be acquired.”

More levees mean more buyouts. More buyouts mean more money.

That’s why Zimmerman said Moorhead is proposing to the state that property acquisition for flood protection should be a project in and of itself. With state and local money, Moorhead wants to create a fund that is always available – not just after a flood.

“Maybe a riverfront property owner three years from now wants to sell,” Zimmerman said. “That’s a perfect opportunity if we know we’ve got some funding.”

The city of Fargo is hoping that on June 30 voters will approve a half-cent sales tax that will be designated for flood protection.

“That’s one of the reasons for a sales tax when we get into the buyouts – we’ve got local money to spend so we can use the property to build the proper levees,” Zavoral said.

In the meantime, areas such as Oakport Township are waiting to see what kind of state funding it can get for its dike project. It’s a four-phase project that would surround Jessie Swanson’s 16-acre property, where she enjoys walks in the grove of trees her husband planted.

“It’s so peaceful out here,” she said. “I will come out OK on this somehow, sooner or later. Maybe later, but I’ll hang in there. I just don’t know what the next few years will bring.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

About this series

The words have become a mantra for communities in the Red River Valley.

With so much on the line, The Forum set out to take an in-depth look at the Red River Valley and the flooding issues that plague it. We also wanted to examine more closely what solutions might be.

Last week we explained the dynamics of the Red River Valley. Today we take you through its history.

Each Sunday over the next month, we’ll unfold more layers of the story.