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Published July 04, 2011, 03:22 PM

Flooding Doesn't Dampen North Dakotans' Resilience

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.

By: Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

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 Rafferty and Alameda dams in Saskatchewan to hold back flows in the spring.

Were they safe now? They were assured. 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 days with 8 ½ 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 the washers and dryers back in the basement.

When it started raining again, the flood control dam at Lake Darling, just north of Minot, was already full. The Canadian dams had been operating at or above their maximum reservoir levels since May 6. Trying to hold it back would have meant threatening the integrity of the dams. Saskatchewan officials notified Minot: Look out.

"It's like in one day they said you're going to see 11,000 cubic feet per second coming at you. We're thinking, OK, we can still put a couple of feet of dikes all the way through the city and manage," Zimbelman explained. "Later in the day it was 14,000, and then 18 and 20,000, and it got to the point we knew we couldn't manage it."

People said he looked ashen on TV, ordering the second evacuation. The Corps of Engineers began once again working round-the-clock to raise the levees — in some cases as high as 18 feet — but were stunned to see the amount of water flowing into Minot. "A week ago Monday, June 24 early in the morning, we went to 26,000 (cfs), which is five times greater than what the city's normally protected to," said Col. Michael Price, commander of the Corps of Engineers' St. Paul district. "Mother nature does what it wants."

Ike was frantically packing when five strangers showed up and offered to help her move everything to her neighbor's daughter-in-law's house. Friends and family helped Schobinger and her husband move their belongings to three garages in various parts of town.

Then everyone watched as the Corps conceded much of the heart of the city and retreated to protect key bridges and infrastructure. Whole neighborhoods were swamped. "We'll be back," someone wrote on their roof before departing.

Sitting at a local cafe this week, Schobinger and Ike smiled at a waitress who stepped up to pour coffee. "How're you doing?" Schoberg asked her.

"I'm fine," the waitress said, smiling back, until tears suddenly began welling from her eyes and down her cheeks. "But I feel so guilty that I'm fine," she said. "So many people are — " her voice trailed off. Ike patted her hand and tried to make a joke.

Robert Schempp, the former Minot city manager who led the city through the fight to win flood control measures said residents were promised safety against a 100-year flood.

"It was never anticipated that the city would be protected from all floods," Schempp said. "The federal government and the city of Minot bought flood control storage. They basically worked this year, but the good lord overpowered them and gave them more rain than they could handle."

Price said new hydrology studies will be conducted to determine whether the flood plain maps should be revised, and whether additional channel work is needed. Many Minot residents want Canada or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates Lake Darling, to try to lower reservoirs earlier in the year to make room for more storage.

"We're not complaining or anything. But we'd like to know why the dams in Canada were full when this flood hit. Especially the ones we helped finance," said retired 6th grade teacher Jerald Burtman, whose 1927 stucco house is under water. "We were told by the people in authority it would be OK. And this spring, it just bit us."

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(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.

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