After Red River Flood Battle, Recovery Debate Begins in Midwest

As the Red River slowly recedes into its banks, soggy flood-fighters along its route are facing a different kind of challenge: Navigating state and federal bureaucracies for help in the recovery.

Most parts of Moorhead, Minn., and Fargo, N.D., were spared the worst as the river hit its peak over the weekend and the dikes held. But preliminary estimates still suggest tens of millions of dollars in damage to roads, bridges, wastewater treatment plants and other public assets, in addition to damage to some homes and businesses.

The financial toll could climb if this week's heavy snowfall causes a second crest in coming weeks. The river's unpredictability is vexing for response teams, who are anxious to get financial assistance flowing quickly but also have to tackle the disaster itself.

Click here for photos.

"We're recovering and fighting the flood at the same time," said Kris Eide, director of Minnesota's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division.

Government assessment teams are calculating damage to roads, bridges, wastewater treatment plants and other public assets. The review of private property damage is under way in North Dakota and should start in Minnesota by week's end.

While damage assessments were getting under way, life in Fargo, a city of more than 90,000, was slowly returning to normal. Nonessential businesses that had to shut down were allowed to reopen Wednesday, and at least one nursing home and assisted living center that evacuated residents was beginning to bring them back Thursday. Schools were due to reopen Monday.

"It's going to be a slow process," said Holly Scott, at the city's emergency operations center, on Thursday. "It'll be very gradual, very calculated. We need to make sure it's safe for folks to be back at home again."

Officials continued to patrol the sandbag-topped dikes protecting the city from the Red River, which had dropped to about 36 1/2 feet Thursday morning, down from its high of 40.82 feet early Saturday. A second crest could come later this month, and Scott said residents were asked to remain vigilant.

Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said problems continue in outlying rural areas where waters remain high.

"We've got people cut off still," he said. "We've got to get people out of their homes."

Laney had no estimate of how many people were cut off, but said he would by the end of Thursday.

Oslo, Minn., north of Fargo, was one of the isolated areas, with flood waters covering both roads into town. Officials are using airboats to ferry supplies to rural residents who have stayed in their homes, manning generators and water pumps and watching sandbag dikes.

Temperatures were expected to rise above freezing during daylight hours for the next several days. That would allow a slow thaw of the region's snowpack that could keep the Red River below the extensive sandbag dikes.

Both North Dakota and Minnesota received assurances early on that resources they put toward holding back floodwaters would be partially reimbursed by the federal government. About $1.2 million for North Dakota is already moving through the pipeline, said Tito Hernandez, a Federal Emergency Management Agency regional official.

In Minnesota, early evaluations turned up more than $20 million in public damage across seven counties, with the vast majority occurring in Clay County, where Moorhead is located. In North Dakota, Fargo's city administrator said the cost for cleaning up the Fargodome alone could total $1.5 million. The building was used for filling sandbags to hold back the river.

If the preliminary numbers hold, Minnesota would easily earn the major disaster declaration for public infrastructure repair. North Dakota has already met its threshold.

Under the declaration, FEMA picks up 75 percent of costs associated with the flooding and the remainder is left to state and local governments.

Officials in Fargo hope the rebuilding effort will be funded largely by the federal government, and cleanup efforts will pump money into the economy through contractors.

The business disruption will probably cost more than $100 million in Fargo, said David Flynn, who directs the bureau of business and economic research at the University of North Dakota.

John Stern, co-owner of Straus Clothing, a downtown retailer that dates to 1879, estimated that the flood closure would mean a loss of about $10,000. Profits will drop 25 percent for March.

"We're in a garden spot economically," he said of Fargo. "Right now, it doesn't look like much of a garden."