Flood turns Minot's housing shortage into crisis

Workers in North Dakota's booming oil industry and related jobs had taken up any empty space in Minot before the swollen Souris River raced into the city, filling thousands of homes with water and turning the housing shortage into a crisis.

Housing is tight across the state's oil patch, with some workers in far-flung areas living in cars, campers and hotels. In Minot, the biggest city near the state's oil patch, new construction enabled people to find a roof to put over their heads. More than 1,000 apartments and 600 homes were built in the past three years.

But the flood that drowned some 4,100 homes last week destroyed those gains and set the city back. Many people are now living in vans, sleeping in tents and staying at shelters. Even more have bunked up with friends or relatives.

"We were already in a major building mode and desperately trying to catch up to the oil boom before the flood and this is going to make it worse," said Darrell Linnertz, Minot's building inspector for the past two decades. "This will make the housing shortage almost ridiculous — people are going to have to live anywhere they can."

The flood broke a more than 130-year-old record for high water. In some cases, the river reached the eaves of homes. A Federal Emergency Management Agency survey done by airplane found about 800 houses covered by more than 10 feet of water and 2,400 under at least 6 feet. For most residents, that means they've lost anything on their first floor and in finished basements, which are common.

The city will need to build — and build fast — and that creates another problem: where to house construction workers?

"There physically aren't enough companies here to do the work and outside contractors will have to come in," Linnertz said. "I don't know how that will happen."

It's not clear how many homes will have to be razed. Mayor Curt Zimbelman said demolition may be the only solution for nearly one-fifth of the homes hit with the highest water. But city officials said the final number will depend on several things, including how long the water remains.

"A lot of it is going to depend on the structure and how it was built and how old it was," Zimbelman said.

City Council member Dave Lehner owns a Craftsman-style home that was built in 1908 and listed locally as a historic structure. He had to evacuate the house last week and hasn't seen it since. He's heard reports that it and others in his neighborhood are standing in about 3 feet of water.

"I've heard the water isn't high enough for boat motors, so that's a good thing," said Lehner, who has been staying at his grandparents' farm outside of the city.

His house, with its quartersawn oak doors and trim and leaded glass windows is irreplaceable, and not just monetarily, Lehner said. It contains an apartment that was once home to a cousin of big band leader Lawrence Welk, one of North Dakota's most famous sons. Welk routinely stayed at the home while touring in the 1930s — until his cousin kicked him out over a telephone bill dispute, he said.

"I'm not going to try to save my house, I'm going to," said Lehner, who has lived there for 30 years. "This house has survived floods in 1923, 1927, 1953 and 1969, and hopefully it will survive this one."

Linnertz, the building inspector, said no criteria have been set yet at the local or federal level to determine whether a home can or should be rebuilt or moved. This flood stretched far beyond the designated flood plain, so the city's earlier plan is "out the window now," he said.

Linnertz said he would like to see some of the most flood-prone homes razed to make way for a greenbelt, though that may be a tough sell to locals.

"Minot sits in a valley but we can't take the whole valley out of use," he said.

Ed Conley, a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman, said he has seen more than 200 disasters in his 20 years with the agency, and the Souris River flood is among the worst.

Thousands of residents will find their homes filled with muck when the water recedes. Contents left behind are being "pushed and pulled around by the current" and can do significant structural damage, Conley said.

"The more water you have and the longer it stays up, the more damage you have," he said. "There are some homes here that just won't be repairable."

Bev Collings, Grand Forks' building and zoning administrator, said nearly 1,500 homes and other structures there were demolished after the 1997 Red River flood. Grand Forks officials learned lessons they have since shared with other communities: homes heated with fuel oil can be lost because the oil soaks in, creating dangerous vapors; brick foundations are more likely to have damage than sturdier ones; and mold can be a major problem, particularly in warm weather.

Overall, the structural integrity of the home is most important, Collings said.

"If the bones are OK, it probably can be saved if it hasn't been soaking too long," she said. But she said, there's one thing she knows for certain: "They have a long, long road ahead of them."