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As water ebbs in Minot, thoughts of what comes next

/ Source: news services

Gus and Jane Krueger spent part of their 58th wedding anniversary in a McDonald's restaurant, sipping chocolate milkshakes as a government agent provided a crash course in applying for assistance to salvage their flood-ravaged house.

Like most of the thousands of homeowners in sections of Minot overrun by the Souris River, the Kruegers carried no flood insurance and acknowledged feeling lost as they pondered what to do next. Still, they were determined to rebuild and carry on.

"It's our home," Jane Krueger, 76, said Sunday while waiting to meet with the Federal Emergency Management Agency official. "It's where we belong."

The Souris River flooding smashed a 130-year-old record by nearly 4 feet, rolling over permanent and temporary flood protections five days ago and on Monday leaving traffic jammed on the only route connecting Minot's north and south sides.

A drive that normally takes 15 minutes at most extended to two or three hours or more, said Dean Lenertz, a Minot Fire Department captain and city spokesman.

The river by Monday had pulled back a half foot from the peak reached late Saturday to early Sunday at the Broadway Bridge but it could be weeks before some residents can get a look at the homes they were forced out of on Wednesday.

"It is going to be a very slow process of drying out these wetted areas over the next probably two to three weeks," said Allen Schlag, a National Weather Service hydrologist based in Bismarck, North Dakota.

About 12,000 residents have been displaced by the flooding, but city officials do not have an exact figure. A few hundred people have used Red Cross or other shelters and many have turned to friends, family and neighbors for temporary housing.

Schlag said it may take into July for people to return to areas on the outer fringe of the evacuation zones and most probably would not be able to return to the worst-hit areas for at least two weeks.

"I wouldn't expect the first person being in for at least 10 days to start really getting a good chance to survey and start drying things out," Schlag said.

About 4,100 structures sustained damage, mostly houses, Minot city spokesman Dean Lenertz said on Monday. At least half of the houses have extensive damage, he said.

The Souris, or Mouse, River, flows from Canada southeast into North Dakota in a horse-shoe, curling back into Canada to the northeast and connecting with a Red River tributary.

As the river hit its peak and began a slow retreat, residents looked ahead to an arduous rebuilding job while continuing to deal with short-term obstacles such as sharing the homes of friends and relatives, traffic tie-ups and an advisory to boil drinking water.

'You really kick yourself'
"We know that we have a tremendous recovery effort coming, and even as we talk about how to beat this water back over the next few days, we have already started talking about how the recovery will be managed and organized," Gov. Jack Dalrymple said.

Just 375 of the 4,000 homes in flooded areas were insured for floods, FEMA spokesman John Ashton said. Many owners said they had been led to believe it was unnecessary after a 1969 flood led to construction of levees and straightening of the river channel.

Mike and Jodi Picard checked with neighbors when moving into their house less than two years ago and found that just one had flood insurance. The river was a quarter-mile away, and the prevailing opinion was that their subdivision was no longer in the floodplain.

"Now you really kick yourself for not having it," said Jodi Picard, 44.

The couple stood on a bridge overlooking the swollen river, straining for a glimpse of their house in a distant cul-de-sac. It appeared water was knee-deep on the main floor.

They were staying with relatives in the area but insisted their departure was temporary. After the water recedes, they'll pump the basement dry, tear out drywall and insulation and make needed repairs.

State lawmakers probably will consider offering flood relief during a special session this fall. North Dakota has $386 million in a rainy-day fund, and $136 million in a school-aid fund could be diverted to the many communities touched by floodwaters this year. Both are fattened by revenues from an oil boom that generates $1 billion a year in tax money and has provided a shield during the recession.

FEMA has approved individual rebuilding assistance for Burleigh County, home to the capital of Bismarck, and Ward County, where Minot is located. Dalrymple is pushing to expand it to 20 other counties and the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Spirit Lake Sioux reservations.

The assistance is capped at a little more than $30,000, but Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said a more realistic figure is $7,000 to $8,000 — the typical amounts provided to victims of severe flooding in Nashville, Tenn., a year ago.

FEMA and the federal Small Business Administration will offer loan and grant programs, too. The Bank of North Dakota, the nation's only state-owned bank, already offers low-interest loans up to $500,000 to businesspeople, farmers and ranchers in places the president has declared a disaster area.

Eric Hardmeyer, the Bank of North Dakota's president, said the bank learned valuable lessons about administering disaster aid from the epic Red River Valley floods of 1997, which swamped the city of Grand Forks, knocked out its sewer and water systems and forced the evacuation of more than 50,000 people.

"We found that we needed to let the federal programs get in and do their business before we found out where we should play," Hardmeyer said. "Their pockets are deeper, and they're more experienced at that than we are."

Pat Owens, who was mayor of Grand Forks when the flood hit in April 1997, said federal agencies were critical to the city's recovery. They set up a one-stop shop for aid programs in Grand Forks' Civic Auditorium.

"That was a salvation," Owens said. "People would not know how to even begin trying to bring their lives back, and that gave them a place to go."

Two federal assistance centers were opening this week in Minot and another in Bismarck, Dalrymple said.

Local officials have also turned their attention to disease prevention.

North Dakota Health Department officials ordered displaced residents in the region to drink from bottled water when possible, and to boil tap water before drinking it.

"People are getting the drinking water they need," said Dean Lenertz, a Minot city spokesman, adding that extensive tests would determine when they can lift the "boil order."

"There are plenty of sources for bottle water and people can boil water for a couple minutes and it's good to go," he said on Sunday.

The order also directs residents not to use tap water to wash dishes, brush their teeth or make ice, and to shower with their eyes closed, Lenertz said. Health Department officials do not know when the order will be lifted.

Struggling to look ahead
Some occupants of damaged or destroyed homes were still dealing with the shock while struggling to look ahead.

Les Younger, a retired Air Force veteran who maintained aircraft weapons systems at Minot Air Force Base, and his wife, Jacque, a seamstress, said they did not buy flood insurance because they thought their home was far enough from the river.

Rebuilding "is going to be very tough, because we don't have a lot of savings," Jacque Younger said.

Many said their religious faith would get them through the disaster.

John and Deb Walker held each other tightly during a Sunday service at a local hotel that united three Evangelical Lutheran congregations. The couple married just two months ago and moved into Deb Walker's 55-year-old house, which easily survived previous floods but now is covered almost to the roof.

They said they weren't sure what would become of the structure but intended to remain in the Minot area, which Deb Walker described as their "physical foundation."

"But our spiritual foundation is found in Christ," she said. "In times like these, we ... put our trust in him and let him be our guide."