New FEMA official tours Devils Lake
CAMP GRAFTON, N.D. -- The flood-plagued community of Minnewaukan, N.D., likely will have to wait until spring to start building the infrastructure -- streets, water and sewer lines -- in West Minnewaukan, where a portion of the town will be reloc...
CAMP GRAFTON, N.D. -- The flood-plagued community of Minnewaukan, N.D., likely will have to wait until spring to start building the infrastructure -- streets, water and sewer lines -- in West Minnewaukan, where a portion of the town will be relocated to escape the rising Devils Lake.
A federal environmental assessment of the project likely will not be completed until the end of January, at the earliest, according to David Miller, associate administrator for the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
That's "if everything does fall into place," he told Minnewaukan City Councilman Mark Motis, whose own home is among those that would be relocated to higher ground.
"When I moved to Minnewaukan in 1976, the lake was 9 miles away from town. Now, it's on three sides of my house," Motis said. "Every day's a blessing if I can walk around my yard and not get my feet wet."
Miller, who is new to the federal position, took an aerial tour of the Devils Lake Basin Thursday with Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard. Earlier in the day, they and other officials from FEMA and the state Department of Emergency Services also toured flood-damaged areas around Minot.
"I wanted to see some of it firsthand," Miller said. "Reading about it, seeing it on videotape doesn't do it justice. The flyover brought the point home of the complexity of the problem."
Devils Lake has risen by about 32 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993, reaching a record 1,454.4 feet above sea level this past summer. Four more feet and it will start spilling naturally and possibly uncontrollably into the Sheyenne River.
Engineers estimate an overflow could send as much as 14,000 cubic feet of water per second downstream for more than 90 days, through communities such as Valley City and Lisbon. That's more than twice as much water as was flowing through Valley City during its record flood of 2009.
More than $1 billion has been spent in the past 18 years to mitigate the flood damage.
The state is in the process of building or planning two outlets from Devils Lake, a pumped outlet from East Devils Lake to the Tolna Coulee, and a gravity-flow outlet from Stump Lake. Both are expected to be completed by next June.
Together with the existing west-end outlet, they will have the capability of moving between 700 and 1,000 cfs. A $10 million control structure also will be built on the Tolna Coulee to help minimize downstream damage.
At Camp Grafton, a National Guard training facility, Miller visited with city and county officials and legislators from throughout the Devils Lake Basin, who are seeking additional federal aid.
While acknowledging past and present FEMA help, as well as other federal and state assistance, they said local governments no longer can afford to pay even the local matching share to raise roads and protect other infrastructure.
Dalrymple said some rules need to be changed, citing cases where millions of dollars have been spent to raise roads to provide access to just a handful of rural farmsteads.
"We've tried to make the case that instead of building up roads and spending millions, why not buy the house for $150,000 and be done with it," the governor said.
Miller said that while federal regulations are difficult to change, they should be examined.
"The thing I'm intent about is that we need to look at these things comprehensively and there are a number of players in this issue. I'm trying to get a sense of what's already been done and then figuring out, finding out what's going to work in the future," he said.
The basin flood already has resulted in major FEMA-sponsored property acquisition programs, including Churchs Ferry, N.D., and more recently the majority of homes in nearby Penn, N.D.
Nearly 30 homes already have been moved away or destroyed in Minnewaukan, a community that has seen its population cut in half, from about 320 to about 160, in the past four years.
A new school is under construction in the new subdivision, about two miles away and across U.S. Highway 281 from the present town site. Minnewaukan School and a third of the city are protected by a 3,000-foot-long temporary dike. Besides the school and a residential district, the new subdivision also will include a small business district.
The Benson County Courthouse and the current business district, along with several homes will stay because they're at high enough elevations.
Time grows short
But the major portion of the relocation project cannot proceed until the federal environmental assessment, which involves several agencies, is completed.
In the meantime, people are moving away.
"It's a small town to start with," said state Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake. "If they can move 50 miles away, it'll take some time to maybe get those people back, if you can."
Miller said a major challenge is bringing together federal, state and local governments, as well as the private sector, to find solutions.
"The question is how we are going to piece it together. How are we going to affect the change? Can we get out front of it, and then what's sustainable into the future. It's a substantial investment. But if you make the investment and you can't sustain it longer term, it's probably not the wisest project that we ever did.
"So, what we're building we've got to build smartly. We know that we need to be able to sustain it into the future, that it has real meaning for the folks in this area."
Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send email to email@example.com .