Flood Recovery in Minot: Painstaking But Possible

North Dakota's vibrant oil industry and advice from communities that learned painful lessons from similar catastrophes should help pull Minot's economy from the muck of its worst-ever flood, officials predict.

"I don't want to minimize the impact of this flood, because it is huge," said Jerry Chavez, the president of the Minot Area Development Corp., which promotes job creation in the region. "But this economic train that Minot is on, it's going to take a lot more than a flood to derail us."

The Souris River, which snakes through the center of the northwestern North Dakota city, last month overran most of the city's protective levees and flooded more than 4,000 homes. More than 11,000 people were forced to evacuate, a quarter of the city.

And while flood victims may find navigating bureaucracy for aid maddening -- as it was after major floods in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Grand Forks, N.D -- there may be hope in lessons learned by each city. Both turned rebuilding into rebirth, channeling federal money into new public buildings.

In 2008, Cedar Rapids had more than 10,000 people displaced and saw its city hall, federal courthouse, public library, fire station and museums and theaters go under water.

Now, a new federal courthouse that had been sought for a decade is being built. Federal money became available for a new convention center and hotel project. A $35 million reconstruction of the city's historic Paramount Theatre got under way last week.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said the theater improvements illustrate the city's rebuilding approach. He recalled a conversation he said he had with a woman who decided to remodel her kitchen after her home sustained flood damage.

"She says, `I took the opportunity to enhance my kitchen and I love it.' That's what we're doing with Cedar Rapids," he said. "You don't necessarily want to rebuild exactly the way it was."

Other aspects of Cedar Rapids' rebuilding have been more painstaking. The city is eligible for federal aid to protect its industrial east side from future floods, but not its residential west side. That's left officials attempting to create a plan that protects the entire city.

Officials also have had arguments with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over hundreds of money decisions, including payments for debris removal, the location of a new firehouse and whether the repair of a hydroelectric power station qualifies for federal aid.

In 1997, the Red River overran most of Grand Forks, N.D., including its downtown and the University of North Dakota, the state's largest college. The city's sewer and water treatment plants went under, knocking out municipal water for almost two weeks.

"Everything was just a mess," said former Gov. Ed Schafer, who was governor during that flood.

"It was very difficult to keep businesses going, to keep kids in school, to keep the newspaper printed. You don't have that, to the same extent, in Minot."

A key element of Grand Forks' recovery was the availability of about $200 million in federal Department of Housing and Urban Development grants for home buyouts and other projects, said Pat Owens, who was Grand Forks' mayor at the time. The buyouts helped make room for a major new dike system.

City officials pushed ahead with major building projects after the flood water receded.

Construction began on the Alerus Center, an $80 million events center, which had been on the drawing board before the flood, despite complaints that it was an unaffordable luxury. A new $19 million Grand Forks County office building went up. Some flood-damaged downtown buildings were razed in favor of a new, open town square with a stage and children's play area that is used for concerts, farmers' markets and a regional art festival.

Minot officials aren't speculating yet about what kinds of projects the flood may made possible.

David Looysen, who retired last week as Minot's school superintendent, said the flood ruined careful upkeep of several buildings, including Ramstad Middle School, which had recently undergone extensive remodeling work and added two new classrooms and a gymnasium.

"We've had some plans all along on how to get our buildings all up to snuff. In terms of technology, they were all right where we wanted them," Looysen said.

The climate for getting federal help has become tougher since both the Grand Forks and Cedar Rapids floods.

The Community Development Block Grant program has been targeted for budget cuts. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said federal aid in general will be more difficult to obtain, but he said the grants will be needed to buy out flood-devastated homes and improve Minot's defenses against the Souris River.

"We have now a growing crisis in housing in the Minot community and in other communities," Conrad said. "We're going to need federal assistance that goes beyond the standard FEMA programs."

Current and former Grand Forks city officials stressed the importance of obtaining housing and day care for flood victims, holding public meetings to hear residents' concerns, and pressing for federal reconstruction aid.

"Having people leave is what you fear the most," Owens said. "People tend to want to move on."
FEMA aid for individual homeowners, which will be available in at least five North Dakota counties, won't be enough by itself for a strong recovery, Conrad said. Those grants are limited to just over $30,000 each and Conrad says they likely will be much smaller.

But Chavez, the Minot development official, and others said Minot has a number of strengths. Most of the city was not damaged by the flood, and the sewer and water systems are intact.

There's the city's connection to the oil industry, too. In recent years North Dakota has become the nation's fourth-largest oil producer, and the state is raking in more than $1 billion annually in oil taxes. The state has more than 5,000 wells, and regulators say that number could double in 10 years.

Minot sits on the edge of that, and the city's recently developed "energy park" already is hosting three major oilfield services companies, Houston-based Hallliburton and Baker Hughes and Pure Energy Services USA Inc., whose parent company is based in Calgary, Alberta.

Chavez said he has been talking to petroleum and agricultural companies that are still willing to establish or expand their Minot operations in the wake of the flood. Minot also has recently developed a park for hosting agricultural processing operations, and a "port" designed for container shipping of farm goods.

"We have been thrown some curve balls, but we're still in the game," Chavez said.