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Almost five years after devastating flood, Minot tries to rise above the water

The Souris river begins to pour into a neighborhood after after levees could no longer hold back flood waters in Minot, ND on June 23, 2011. (Forum News Service file photo.)

MINOT, N.D. -- Milo Schmeichel lived along the Souris River in Minot for 40 years.

He’s no longer there as the sometimes confrontational buyout of his home and half-acre of land was finalized in mid-January.

Although he wasn’t all that happy with the price he got for his home and land and argued with the city about appraisals and other property issues, he no longer has to worry about flooding -- like during the city’s worst-ever flood in 2011 that left water inside his home over the top of the doorways.

He wasn’t alone in that flood that is nearing its five-year anniversary as more than 4,100 businesses and homes were inundated with the late June floodwaters causing the evacuation of  12,000 city residents.

Schmeichel -- a contractor who was nearing retirement -- tore down his home and moved in a manufactured house after the flood. That’s what he sold, along with the land and an unattached garage, to the city in the buyout.

His home is about the 230th to be purchased along the river that winds through the city, but there are hopes that more deals can be done in the coming months as glimmers of hope emerge in Minot that flood protection is finally getting closer.

For many, though, it’s been a difficult five years. Schmeichel said he can’t retire yet because of payments on his new home in the southern hills of Minot, but he said there’s “not much you can do about it. You have to go along with your life -- go with the flow. But I know I’m a lot poorer now than before the flood.

“There are a lot of people more disgusted with the city than I am (about the buyout procedures and federal regulations). But you have to go on with your life and make the best of what you are going to get. I lost some sleep over this, but I don’t want to fight with the city anymore.”

He loved his home along the Souris that curls from Canada through north-central North Dakota and back into Canada. The riverside lot had little wind, no close neighbors and a quiet seclusion away from the main roadways.

“But I’m just glad it’s over with,” he said.

However, what’s not over is the long road still ahead -- but perhaps getting closer -- for the city as it nears that fifth anniversary of the flood.

‘The forgotten flood’

Despite being one of the worst in the state’s history,  U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., calls it “the forgotten flood.”

Because of that, Minot Mayor Chuck Barney said he’s not going to quit telling the story of the flood that destroyed parts of the city that has now grown from about 40,000 people in 2010 to 50,000 or more with the onset of the oil boom.

Barney plans to keep memories of the 2011 flood alive until the work is done to complete a greenway park area along the river, move city hall and housing to higher ground and get permanent flood protection walls and levees in place with a diversion ditch.

The city’s big boost earlier this month -- that raised spirits -- was when it won a competitive federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for about $74 million to help in at least part of that work.

Barney said the city already has started a “plan of action” to use the funds. HUD gave the city 90 days to further develop what they want to do with the funds. However, there’s been no official word yet either on how the city can use the HUD funds -- with word expected by late February.

In the city’s application for the grant, some of the Minot plan highlights were expanding on the home buyout program to increase the approximate 230 already purchased, move city offices out of the floodplain to downtown, moving the Minot State University art and nursing programs downtown and creating that green space along the river that will connect parks on the west and east side of the city and provide an area for higher water.

The mayor said there simply “ecstatic” over receiving the grant that Heitkamp said “rose to the top” after the Minot application was received and reviewed by numerous federal agencies and selected from 40 finalists including those from New York City and New Orleans.

Not bad for a small city, Barney said.

He said one of the keys, he thought, was that they held 67 community meetings to gather input and support for proposed projects.

It also didn’t hurt that the state’s congressional delegation, including hometown native U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, have been working to keep the plight of Minot alive in Washington, D.C.

Barney and city manager Lee Staab have made numerous visits to the nation’s capital as they continue to pursue the federal dollars needed to finish projects. They always bring along a video of the flooding five years ago to help tell the story.

“We know we have a problem out there (in D.C.) when some refer to our city as Mee-not,” Barney said.

State funding has also been a big help, Barney added.

What’s next?

The next major effort is to secure funding to complete permanent flood protection -- similar to what’s in place in Grand Forks and advancing in Fargo -- to prevent another disaster. A key to that is working with and securing funding from the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or other possible federal sources.

Already underway is the first part of the plan from funds received earlier to protect the city’s water treatment plant along the river. Barney said the work is already in progress and should be done by the summer of 2017.

Other permanent flood protection work almost completely designed and ready to go are floodwalls, levees and pumps.  The work will stretch along the river from its bottom in the middle of the city to where hills take care of flood worries..

Barney said these projects are planned in three phases with a critical fourth phase needed to complete the protection.

The fourth phase includes a completion of the floodwalls and a diversion channel that will mean about 60 percent of the land flooded in 2011 is protected providing a major effect on flood insurance rates for many city residents.

City finance director Cindy Hemphill said the city is still looking for funding to complete the first phases of the project. “We’re about $40 million short,” she said.

“We continue to pursue funds from state, federal or anyone who wants to help,” she said.

“We’ll even take donations,” she said, half in jest.

Hemphill hopes dirt can be turned in 2017 on the first floodwalls and levees, although work continues on the design and environmental assessments..

Then it’ll be time to work towards starting on the diversion ditch -- also a key and final part of the project. It’s hoped design work on that final phase can start before then.