Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Minot a wasteland after 'tsunami' hits

North Dakota city painstakingly recovers

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MINOT -- The state fair -- the biggest fair in North Dakota that was supposed to start here this weekend and draw thousands of visitors and pours millions of dollars into this city's coffers -- is gone.

Three schools? Gone. Students will need to be bused elsewhere.

The zoo? Gone. The animals have been moved to other zoos across the U.S. Midwest and the Minot zoo won't reopen this year.

Four thousand homes? Gone. The Souris River, called its anglicized name -- Mouse River -- here, tried to wash this community away.

Those 4,000 homes didn't just get a little wet in the basement. Some 800 homes had more than three metres of water on the main floor. Joe Holzer's mother's home was one of them. Water rose past her ceiling and within half a metre of the roof's peak. All those homes must be demolished.

Another 2,400 homes had two to three metres of water inside them. It's not known what will happen to them.

About 800 homes suffered what they're calling moderate damage -- half a metre to two metres of water on the main floor -- and 132 homes were slightly flooded.

Then there's the trailer park, called Holiday Village, with its roughly 500 trailer homes. It's gone and won't be coming back. Speaking of Holiday monickers, the Holiday Inn was flooded and has been closed since late June.

Flood damage here is estimated at $1 billion. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has pledged $50 million to help.

Meanwhile, the state government's reticence on flood aid has been deafening. It's sitting on a budget surplus of more than $1 billion, thanks to royalties from the oil boom in northwestern North Dakota. However, it also has to contend with flooding in Bismarck and Mandan from the Missouri River.

Then there's the smell. In Minot's lower neighbourhoods flooded by the Souris River, there's not only the smell of muddy river water but the stench of raw sewage. The Souris took out sewage lagoons upstream of Minot and delivered them here.

But that's not all.

Minot has been pumping raw sewage into the Souris since June 1. The flood knocked out half the city's lift stations. That sewage is headed to Manitoba.

The water was 1.5 metres higher this year than the disastrous 1969 flood. But if the 1969 flood was disastrous, it's tough to put this one into words. "I call it 'the tsunami of the Plains,' " said Don Vitko, a tire salesman who generously provided the Free Press with a tour. "I'm still looking at it and shaking my head."

Sheds wound up on rooftops. Decks wound up in other blocks. Water smashed through garage doors and windows. The current was so strong it knocked homes off their foundations.

This community is still shell-shocked. Water left the worst-flooded area last Saturday. Huge mounds of ripped-out walls and furniture are piled on the curbs in front of those homes. The mounds virtually all look the same -- piles of drywall, pink or yellow insulation, beds, carpets, shelves, furniture. That's in neighbourhoods between the Burdick Expressway and the Souris River.

Some of those subdivisions have houses up to a century old. Minot started as a railway town, where the old steam engines stopped to get water out of the Souris River. But other flooded subdivisions are brand-new, built under the assurance they were protected by the Rafferty and Alameda dams built in Saskatchewan two decades ago that provide protection for a one-in-100 year flood.

This was a one-in-500 year flood.

You can see how high the water got by the mud staining the sides of buildings and houses. The flood lines are about two metres up from the ground but in some cases water submerged entire houses. And everything is encrusted with river mud, from the floors to the walls and even windows, as well as the lawns. The water killed the bottom of trees, producing another water line.

Ryan Callahan's home sat in smelly river water for 22 days. The water was up to his neck and his main floor is about 60 centimetres off the ground. Every wall in his house and basement has been removed. He and family and friends were pressure-washing the entire house to prevent mould.

Callahan's wife is due to give birth in about six weeks, and is staying in East Grand Forks to try to keep out of the heat and away from the stress. Callahan is living with a colleague from work.

Like everyone here, he doesn't know what comes next. He can hardly turn his attention to what the future holds. Friends, family and co-workers are just helping him put one foot in front of the other right now.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 22, 2011 A4

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