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Souris River flooding: North Dakota expects $40M-$50M from FEMA

MINOT, N.D. - Comparing the number of homes estimated to have been damaged by the Souris River flood and the money that's likely available to buy them out and remove them from the flood plain, officials here did some sobering math Thursday.

MINOT, N.D. - Comparing the number of homes estimated to have been damaged by the Souris River flood and the money that's likely available to buy them out and remove them from the flood plain, officials here did some sobering math Thursday.

The state is expecting to receive about $40 million to $50 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk at a news conference. The head of the state's emergency services department arrived at that number using a funding formula for a federal program to reduce flood hazards, and includes flood damage throughout the state up to this point.

"That money isn't even close to the amount of the damaged properties," said Maj. Gen. Murray Sagsveen, whom the governor appointed last week to head flood recovery efforts state wide.

Using a big sketch pad to emphasize the point to the audience of reporters and local officials, he said that of the 4,100 structures affected by flooding in the valley, most of them homes, nearly 3,200 are now thought to be extensively damaged or completely damaged.

Divide the maximum estimated amount of funding - $50 million - by just the number of homes that may be completely damaged - 805 - and each homeowner would get only $62,000.

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"What that basically means is that people with extensively damaged homes should not rely on the hazard mitigation grant program for a buyout," Sagsveen said. "I know this is a difficult fact, but I believe we just have to put it on the table."

Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman said local, state and congressional officials are looking for any funding that might be available to supplement the $40 million to $50 million in funds.

He, like Sagsveen, said there's no point in comparing Minot to Grand Forks, which received $172 million for buyouts after the 1997 flood. "The situation is just different at this time in our country and those kinds of funds are just not readily available like they were at that time."

Minot with a population of 41,000 is the state's fourth largest city and the largest in the valley. The Souris River crested here more than a week and a half ago, as measured by the Broadway bridge gauge. As of Thursday evening, it was still at 1,555.9 above sea level, which is nearly a foot above the point it's considered to be in major flood stage.

Time frame

Because of the height of the river, just the first phase of recovery is taking a long time. The city has only allowed a small number of the 11,000 flood evacuees back home to begin the long process of cleaning muck from basements and tearing out soggy drywall.

But flood survivors, even those that haven't seen their homes, are already thinking past that to the time they can start rebuilding. This means investing money and labor into homes without knowing whether the homes will be protected from another flood or whether they'll be bought out.

Some have said they'll just make their homes barely livable until they have more information.

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Sprynczynatyk said the city will need four to six months to develop a flood protection plan. Officials will be looking at homes that are most vulnerable and homes that, had they not been there, would've made the flood fight easier, he said. "The priority would be to those areas that if bought out the end result would be most beneficial to the community as a whole."

That's a time frame evacuees have not heard before.

Willie Nunn, FEMA's top official here, gave another key timeframe for evacuees, many of whom now live with friends or family with homes unaffected by flooding. Trailers that will serve as rent-free transition housing for the evacuees will be in place late August or early September, he said.

Several local officials have said that they don't think evacuees will be able to rebuild their homes for many months because of how late in the year it will be before the homes will have dried out enough. That means many will be living somewhere else through the winter.

Protection

But even with a flood protection plan, there's still a question of how much can be done should another flood of the same magnitude occur next year. Talk of buyouts presupposes that any plan would involve raising dikes rather than expanding the reservoir system that are now the city's primary flood control method.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials have said bluntly that the system, which uses three dams in Canada and one at Lake Darling in North Dakota, was maxed out by the flood and nothing different could've been done to prevent damage.

Sprynczynatyk said Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has agreed to discuss ways to improve the system somewhat, such as modifying the operations plan for the Canadian dams and adding sensors to give better advanced warning of rain storms.

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Other than that, he said, there isn't a lot of room to add capacity to the reservoir system. The system, he noted, is designed to fight off a 100-year flood and the 2011 flood was much greater, maybe a 500-year flood.

There had once been a proposal for a massive reservoir would've protected Minot from a 500-year flood, according to former Mayor Orlin Backes, who now heads the city's recovery task force. He came and some local businessmen came up with the idea, he said, but upstream residents, including his own brother, were strongly opposed because the reservoir would've flooded most of the valley as far as the Canadian border.

With the federal government not supportive, he said, they eventually compromised and worked with the Canadians to build dams. Asked if he's thought of reviving the idea of the massive reservoir, he said not with today's environmental rules. "To flood a valley in this day and age is very difficult."

Tu Uyen-Tran writes for the Grand Forks Herald

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