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Moorhead officials: Sandbag flood fight too costly

MOORHEAD - The bill for Moorhead's 2011 flood fight is heading north of $2.5 million, five times the amount in city reserves the City Council initially earmarked for the flood in January, when reserves were at about $6 million.

Chart: The cost of Moorhead's flood fight

MOORHEAD - The bill for Moorhead's 2011 flood fight is heading north of $2.5 million, five times the amount in city reserves the City Council initially earmarked for the flood in January, when reserves were at about $6 million.

A large chunk of the bill, about $409,000, went to pay for labor to fill sandbags, a cost city staff initially estimated would be $166,000.

Mayor Mark Voxland and other City Council members are optimistic federal and state tax dollars will cover Moorhead's flood bill, but they fear such support cannot be counted on every year.

Something, they say, has to change.

Voxland hopes it will be the backyards of the 300 homes in the city that still require sandbag dikes for flood protection.


Filling, storing and moving sandbags made up the bulk of this spring's bill, and Voxland said he'd like to explore ways the city can encourage homeowners near the river to do more to protect their property, especially those with walk-out basements.

He said one way might be for the city to finance building permanent dikes on private property, with the city using its bonding power to generate the dollars.

Under such a plan, homeowners could be asked to pay off the debt over a number of years through special assessments, Voxland said.

"I think the real goal is for the city to get out of making sandbags by next year," he said.

It would be in a property owner's interest to build permanent protection because it would make a home more appealing to a buyer, according to Voxland.

He said that aside from flood buyouts, just three riverfront properties have been sold in Moorhead since the 2009 flood.

Paid labor

Paying workers to fill sandbags was a departure from past years, when volunteers did the job,


But, it was a necessary move, Voxland said.

"It was exactly what needed to be done, given how we changed how we made sandbags," he said, referring to two large "spider" machines the city used for sandbag production.

The mayor said that during the flood of 2009, which brought a record crest of 40.84 feet, filling sandbags appeared to be the "choke point" of the dike-building process.

"Whether you made 'em (sandbags) at Sandbag Central, whether you made 'em on the curb, that seemed to be the slowdown," Voxland said.

City Council Member Mark Altenburg said given the number of sandbags thought necessary for a worst-case scenario, he understands why workers were hired to fill bags this year.

In the future, Altenburg said he would like to see volunteers play a greater role, if there is a need.

"I had a lot of complaints from people that wanted to be more involved. I think as we look forward, we need to find ways to get volunteers and groups on those machines," Altenburg said.

Moorhead officials have stressed they are grateful for the role volunteers played in Moorhead's flood fight this year. City records show 2,000 people helped place filled sandbags onto pallets and more than 1,400 pitched in to build sandbag dikes.


Pilot project?

Council Member Brenda Elmer said residents she has talked to were split 50-50 on the question of paying people to fill sandbags.

"I certainly would not assume that's the new standard. I think that issue is still open for next year," she said, adding she is hopeful the question will become moot.

Elmer, like the mayor and fellow council member Altenburg, backs the idea of the city and homeowners teaming up to build permanent dikes.

She also believes some type of cost sharing is not out of the question and she has spoken to federal officials about the possibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency participating in a pilot project.

In the long run, she said, such collaboration could reduce costs for everyone involved: "the residents, the city and the federal agencies."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com.
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