MEDINA, N.D. — At one time, people in Stutsman County’s Peterson Township had five routes out of their homes and farms. One route went underwater in the wet years of the 1990s. Two others went under in 2019’s wet summer.
The main route to the pavement north of Medina, in central North Dakota's Prairie Pothole region, had seemed pretty solid. But that road started to get soft at the time of an October 2019 blizzard. The water rose all winter, and the road went under in recent weeks when spring melting started in earnest.
Since the people of the township have a route — no matter how many miles the route adds or how inconvenient it is —the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s current policy is that it will not provide the 75% of funding that is available under an emergency declaration. That’s been the guidance from FEMA since September 2017, a change from past years when roads around the region regularly received funding to be made higher, explains Justin Messmer, recovery chief at the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.
“There is an opportunity for us to basically go back to FEMA and ask for grade raises,” he says. Such decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
It’s not just Peterson Township dealing with roads underwater. It’s common through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and pieces of Minnesota, says Jerry Miller, the district five director of the North Dakota Township Officers Association.
“It’s been a total devastation. We’ve got roads underwater everywhere,” he says.
Terry Sletten, executive director of the South Dakota Association of Towns and Townships, says flooded roads also are a problem in her state.
“I am feeling like each township may have kind of their own challenges,” she says.
A fix in the works?
Rural road flooding is pretty common in the spring, Messmer says. Some roads go under almost every year and then come out when conditions dry out. The difference now is that 2019 had some historically wet months in some places. Officials worried that even more roads would be underwater as melting began in 2020. But drier conditions in January and February and a slow warm up improved much of the outlook.
“In some ways, this is really not any worse than 2019,” Messmer says about the statewide rural road flood outlook.
Hofmann remains hopeful Peterson Township will be one of the cases where FEMA agrees fixing the road is necessary. The most recent road that went underwater was the main route into Medina, where the children of Peterson Township go to school and where ambulances and fire crews that would respond to emergencies in the township come out of.
"If there is an emergency, the response time will be at least 30 to 40 minutes longer," Hofmann says.
The road that leads to Kidder County is narrow and rutted up and not fit for the kind of traffic it’s started to get since the main road went under.
A grade raise may not be the only option for Peterson Township. Hofmann also has applied for some drainage permits, but that’s not a fast process either, and doesn’t make people downstream happy.
“People downstream, they don’t want any more water either, any earlier than they have to. But the reality is the water will be coming eventually anyways,” he says.
Messmer said in the longer term outlook, there is hope among officials that FEMA will issue a new policy on inundated and submerged roads under the Public Assistance Grant program. A section of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, signed Oct. 5, 2018, requires that FEMA and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration issue new guidance on the subject. Nothing has been issued yet.
It’s not surprising that many rural roads are in rough shape, Miller contends; they weren’t made for the traffic they get now.
“The sad part is, our gravel roads, as township people know, they were made for 2 tons trucks,” he says. “They weren’t made for what we have now.”
And Hofmann says townships are allocated very little tax money to maintain their roads. After taking care of general maintenance like plowing snow and putting down gravel, little is left when major problems like road flooding arise.
“It’s just peanuts,” he says. “You don’t have anything to go on.”