Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Minot flood victims will get little help

$30,000 for $325,000 gutted home

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MINOT, N.D. -- How will state and federal governments look after the citizens of Minot, whose properties were destroyed in last month's tsunami-like flood?

The early signs aren't good for Joe Holzer and nearly 4,200 other homeowners who had up to three metres of water in their homes.

Holzer had a $325,000 house. There's about $70,000 left on his mortgage.

Water filled his house to 1.8 metres high on the main floor. He's already gutted his house to prevent mould. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded him its maximum compensation payment: US$30,000. It's already down to $27,000 after deductions for emergency accommodations and other costs he's incurred.

By comparison, victims of flooding in Manitoba this year are eligible for compensation up to a maximum of C$240,000 under disaster financial assistance, a government spokesman said. The federal government is on the hook for 90 per cent of the payments. The province is estimating Manitoba's cost for both fighting the flood and repairing damages to be $550 million.

"I'm destroyed," said Holzer, 49, an electrician. "I've worked for this place my whole damn life. Now it's shot."

The State of North Dakota won't say what relief it will provide, if any. The cost of the Minot flood alone is estimated to be more than $1 billion. There was also Missouri River flooding in Bismarck, N.D., and Mandan, N.D.

One of the contentious issues in North Dakota is flood insurance.

The Souris River Valley is not like the Red River Valley. The Red River isn't a valley one can detect with the naked eye. When the river floods, the water just keeps spreading and spreading.

The Souris River in Minot, by comparison, has steep banks. So when the Souris floods, it doesn't keep spreading. It just fills a small area deeper.

After the 1969 flood, local government declared people in Minot living in the vicinity of the Souris River had to have flood insurance, and homes in the area couldn't have basements.

In time, the government relented. The Rafferty and Alameda dams, built in the 1990s for flood-water storage by Saskatchewan, with the U.S. chipping in $60 million, provide one-in-100-year-flood protection. Minot city council started to allow new subdivisions in the area. One neighbourhood is less than a year old. Today, brand-new furniture destroyed by flooding is stacked up on the curbs in front of those homes.

Holzer bought flood insurance up to 2009; then his insurance agent told him the coverage hardly warranted the expense. Holzer said he was told it would cover his furnace and hot-water heater and not much else, so he didn't buy it. This is a recurring story in the area. Of almost 4,200 homes flooded in Minot, only 471 had flood insurance.

In fact, the flood coverage, through U.S. federal flood insurance, was much better than Holzer said he was told.

Ultimately, there could be buyouts here similar to what happened after the 1997 flood in Grand Forks. In 1997, FEMA paid 75 per cent of a home's pre-flood value, the state paid 10 per cent, and the county and homeowner split 15 per cent (but usually the homeowner ate the 15 per cent because North Dakota counties don't have large budgets).

People are being told there's not as much money available for the Minot flood. Only the houses with the worst damage will be bought out, government officials are saying.

"The crazy part is, we've got tons of oil," Holzer said. "Oil is just rocking this town." North Dakota is sitting on a budget surplus of more than $1 billion, thanks to royalties from the oil boom in northwestern North Dakota.

"I might walk away," said Holzer, who is living with a friend. Many people will leave Minot. Flooded-out residents have already been told they could very well flood again next year because dikes will not be rebuilt by then.

Or Holzer and his family may live in a 400-square-foot FEMA trailer and try to rebuild. Two hundred FEMA trailers are on their way to Minot as a first instalment. There could eventually be several thousand FEMA trailers accommodating displaced people.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2011 A7

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