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Flooding doesn't dampen North Dakotans' resilience

More than 10,000 residents of Minot have evacuated, but they're enduring it without complaint — a philosophy that's almost a matter of religion.

July 02, 2011|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • These are some of the thousands of homes surrounded by floodwater in Minot, N.D., where the Souris River reached record levels.
These are some of the thousands of homes surrounded by floodwater in Minot,… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )

Reporting from Minot, N.D. — Forty-two years ago, Rae Schobinger's neighbors pitched in to lay sandbags and the city of Minot erected massive levees to try to hold back the normally tranquil Souris River that winds, shady and dreamy, through its center. Much of the town flooded that year, but Schobinger's neighborhood stayed dry.

Another mass evacuation was ordered during the wet spring of 1975. After that, the people of Minot — in the way North Dakotans have of quietly pushing ahead and doing things that are hard — resolved to go along with what officials said was needed in order to fix things.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scoured and straightened the river channel, expanding the amount of water it could hold. The city advanced $11 million of its own money for the work, and the federal government paid $41 million more to Canada, where the Souris originates, for partial use of the new Rafferty and Alameda dams in Saskatchewan to hold back flows in the spring.

Interactive: Minot before and after the flood

Were they safe now? In a state where people said "you betcha" long before Sarah Palin was born, they were assured: yes. There were no longer any homes inside the official map of the 100-year flood plain, and so by this spring, only 471 homeowners felt the need to purchase flood insurance. Schobinger and her friend Karen Ike were not among them.

When Ike bought her house, she remarked to her husband, a real estate agent, how close it was to the river. "I was wondering if I should buy flood insurance and he was like, 'How stupid are you? That river will never come out of its banks. Never,'" Ike said.

Her house — "it's just a small two-bedroom, but I've got this beautiful little backyard with this chain-link fence, and all these vines on it, and it's paid for," she says — is now engulfed. So is Schobinger's and a third of the rest of the city. They're new victims of a resurgent river that has defied engineers and challenged the stoic confidence that has seen locals through 40-below winters and the dreadful springs of drought-starved winter wheat.

"There's people that are mad in this community. This shouldn't have happened," said Schobinger, now one of more than 11,000 Minot residents who have fled their homes.

"We had done everything that we thought we had to do and what we were told that we needed to do," said Mayor Curt Zimbelman. An understated banker in an ever-pressed white shirt and tie, Zimbelman was forced twice over the last month to order citizens to flee their homes as fast as they could, in a voice that somehow managed to be both stricken and calm.

"What's scary is we have 4,100 homes in the water, and 2,376 of them in 6 to 10 feet of water. We have 850 homes in over 10 feet of water. If you talk to the [federal emergency management] people, they're all saying they've never seen anything quite this drastic," Zimbelman said.

In Minot, endurance without complaint— the latter largely regarded here as unseemly and without much utility — is almost a matter of religion.

Planted in the remote North Dakota prairie in 1886 when the builders of the Great Northern Railroad set up their winter encampment, this city of 41,000 has always been a place of taciturn men and capable women. Many are still tied by family to the vast fields of wheat and barley, flat as tables, that are interrupted only by grain elevators, modest farmhouses and the occasional lowing steer.

Out on the farm, a pickup with a dead battery must be started in winds of 60 miles an hour at minus 25 degrees, because there's no one else to take an ailing aunt to the doctor. Even in town, where glorious elms, oaks and poplars bend over wide green lawns in summer, winter means 8 1/2 hours of daylight and snow piled up past the windows.

People pull together. All but about 200 of those flooded out of their homes have found places to live with families and friends. "It's just part of the fabric of life up here," said SuAnne Drawz, who is hosting three evacuated families at her home on South Hill. "It's just what you do. It's the way we were raised."

But even for the people of Minot, what's gone on this year raises troubling questions. How could this happen after everything they had done to prevent it, and after all the promises that the river was tamed?

The story of this excruciating spring begins not with the current evacuation but with the first one in early June, when heavy snowmelt and rain threatened to overwhelm even the improved river channel, which was hastily reinforced with emergency dikes. The new levees held, and as the river dropped, residents moved back home, many ignoring the mayor's advice against putting their washers and dryers back in the basement.

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