Community Dividend

Disaster recovery for low-income people: Lessons from the Grand Forks flood

In examining actions taken and outcomes realized, the tale of the Grand Forks flood provides lessons about ensuring the long-term well-being of low-income people in the event of a disaster.

Sandy Gerber - Community Development Senior Project Manager

Published September 1, 2006  |  September 2006 issue

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the coastal areas of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and flooded the city of New Orleans in the summer of 2005, the scenes of devastation revived memories of one of the worst natural disasters that ever occurred in the Ninth Federal Reserve District.

In the winter of 1996–1997, record snows blanketed the Northern Plains. When the spring snowmelt began, the runoff swelled rivers to dangerous levels—especially the Red River of the North, which forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. In April 1997, the river swamped its dikes, resulting in a catastrophic flood. Extensive areas of the cities of Grand Forks, N.D., on the west bank and East Grand Forks, Minn., on the east bank were destroyed by the high waters. An immense fire that simultaneously swept through downtown Grand Forks caused further destruction.

Prior to the 1997 flood, the total population of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks was just under 60,000, and both communities were over 90 percent white. These two small, Northern cities appear to have little in common with a sprawling, racially diverse Southern city like New Orleans. However, in both catastrophes—Northern and Southern—vulnerable populations struggled to recover, and many low-income individuals did not return to the communities they had called home.

The Grand Forks metropolitan area appears to have coped better with its crisis overall, particularly in the early phases. This may be true for several reasons. Grand Forks had a smaller population with few neighborhoods of highly concentrated poverty. There was no large-scale pattern of racial or ethnic segregation, and the minority populations in the area benefited from some fortuitous circumstances. (For more on the minority experience in the wake of the Grand Forks flood, see the sidebar below.) Grand Forks had done advance disaster planning that promoted cooperation among a multitude of agencies and enabled the city to respond effectively when a crisis actually hit. And solid support was forthcoming at the federal level, which provided the coordination, funding and technical assistance required to address the disaster.

These factors led to immediate outcomes that were beneficial for most people, including those with low incomes. But the latter could have fared better over the long term if there had been careful planning and resource allocation focused specifically on their circumstances. In examining actions taken and outcomes realized, the tale of the Grand Forks flood provides lessons about ensuring the long-term well-being of low-income people in the event of a disaster.

The evacuation and emergency response

Emergency management before, during and immediately after the flood was largely prompt and effective. As the river began rising, high-level officials from the city of Grand Forks prepared for the inevitable flood by organizing informational meetings and sharing evacuation plans with residents. The dikes protecting Grand Forks and East Grand Forks began to fail on April 18, 1997, and large portions of the two cities were soon engulfed in floodwaters. By April 19, approximately 10,000 residents from Grand Forks had fled from approximately 3,000 homes. By this time, city officials had called for a voluntary evacuation of the entire city and a mandatory evacuation of a ten-block area west of the Red River.

The fact that most people had cars enabled them to make a quick exit; for those who did not, the city used buses to transport flood victims to designated shelters. The nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base was instrumental to the evacuation effort, providing buses, boats and security crews. The American Red Cross set up emergency shelters at sites around the area, including the Air Force base and local universities. As of May 2, 1997, 20 public shelters were operating.

In response to a shortage of food during the early days of the evacuation, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army provided hundreds of thousands of meals at fixed meal sites, mobile kitchens, and drive-through meal stations. The North Dakota Department of Human Services initiated an emergency food stamp program for eight Red River Valley counties, and agreed to accept food stamp applications from people who had been evacuated to counties elsewhere. To address the need for fresh water, the North Dakota National Guard sent five water purification units and worked with the U.S. Army Reserve to provide a number of reverse osmosis machines.

A coordinated effort

In early April, damage from prior flooding and storms in the area prompted President Clinton to declare all of North Dakota and affected counties in Minnesota a federal disaster area. The emergency declaration laid the groundwork for a strong partnership among federal, state, and local agencies to carry out a disaster response plan when the Grand Forks flood hit.

Officials established a Disaster Recovery Center at the Grand Forks Civic Center that brought together representatives from numerous agencies and provided information about emergency services, housing assistance, disaster unemployment assistance, and loans and grants for disaster-related needs, such as emergency repairs. A combined state-federal effort created Community Relations Teams made up of seasoned Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers and newly hired North Dakotans. They went door-to-door in Grand Forks, to ensure that people knew about the center and the programs offered there.

Recovery in the aftermath

People at all income levels in the Grand Forks area were deeply affected by the disaster and benefited from the emergency response measures. As time passed, the community's affluent and moderate-income residents gradually returned to work and rebuilt homes. For low-income residents, flood recovery was more problematic—particularly in the areas of affordable housing, employment and childcare. In addition, low-income elderly residents and single mothers were especially vulnerable to the flood's effects. The following describes some of the efforts made to address these issues—and the gaps that remained despite those efforts.

A low-income rental housing shortage

FEMA set up trailers in the local industrial park to house those left homeless by the flood. The trailers were offered free of charge to people who could not be referred to other temporary housing alternatives. They were also offered to homeowners whose houses were less than 50 percent damaged. These homeowners parked the trailers in their driveways and lived in them while their houses were repaired.

Homeowners had an array of recovery grant and loan programs from which to choose, some targeted at those with low and moderate incomes. For example, FEMA quickly made two types of cash assistance available: grants for emergency repairs to make homes livable, and rental assistance to people whose homes had become uninhabitable or who were facing eviction or foreclosure because of the flood.

Fannie Mae allowed people to skip making mortgage payments for up to three months, lowered payments for eighteen months on a case-by-case basis, and created longer payback plans. Similarly, the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency allowed homeowners to make late payments without charging late fees, and delinquencies did not appear on their credit reports.

Through the United States Small Business Administration (SBA), which is the primary federal source of low-interest disaster-recovery loans, homeowners could borrow up to $200,000 for real estate repairs and up to $40,000 to replace damaged personal property. If homeowners could not afford a low-interest loan on top of their mortgage payment, SBA was sometimes able to assist with refinancing existing mortgages and folding in payments for repairs, so the combined amount turned out to be almost the same as preflood payments. If it turned out that some people's incomes were too low to qualify for a loan and they were not covered by insurance or other assistance, SBA referred them to the Individual and Family Grant Program (IFGP), administered by the North Dakota Division of Emergency Management. As of February 1998, more than $14 million in IFGP funds had been approved related to flood losses; an average grant was $1,338. Additional home repair grants for low-income families were available from the Affordable Housing Program of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, via the Bank of North Dakota, and from the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

While displaced low-income renters were eligible for some of the same assistance that was available to homeowners—such as free FEMA trailers and IFGP grants—affordability issues kept many of them from returning to the community.

According to Terry Hanson, executive director of the Grand Forks Housing Authority (GFHA), low-income renters suffered in the aftermath of the flood because many of the more than 750 housing units Grand Forks lost were rentals.

"The low-income rental housing we lost was mostly apartments in the basements of older homes," he recalls. "If a low-income family was in the Section 8 housing program and their basement apartment was destroyed in the flood, the landlord received money to rebuild the house."

Rents for the new apartments were higher than what people were paying before the flood, and they exceeded what low-income renters are allocated in the federal Section 8 housing voucher program. The result?

"The new rental units have gone to middle-income families," says Hanson.

"Low-income housing stock for rental disappeared in the flood," says Dennis DeMers, executive director of Tri-Valley Opportunity Council (TVOC), a community action agency serving East Grand Forks. "New rental housing cost more and people couldn't afford the rents."

DeMers adds that since 1999, few rental apartments have been built in East Grand Forks. People his agency currently serves live in rental units that survived the flood, or moved out to the country to old farmhouses, or live in mobile home parks.

Employment loss and repercussions

According to Hanson, when the flood hit full force, many low-income renters were forced to relocate to the homes of friends and relatives in Fargo, Bismarck, Minneapolis, and other communities.

"Anything they left behind was lost to the floodwaters, along with their low-paying jobs," says Hanson. "In the new places, they found other low-paying jobs and didn't return."

For those who were able to stay in the Grand Forks area, assistance programs provided financial help and opportunities to work. Disaster Unemployment Assistance was made available to people whose livelihoods were affected by the flood. It provided a weekly check for up to 26 weeks following the date of the disaster declaration. This assistance was provided to eligible individuals who were not already receiving regular state unemployment benefits.

Job Service North Dakota (JSND) received $2.5 million in grant money from the federal Disaster Assistance Program to create jobs related to flood recovery for those who were unemployed as a result of the flood. Hundreds of jobs were created for the operation of three Grand Forks daycare centers; city, street, and park clean-up and restoration; and operating a contractor clearing house. JSND reported in mid-May 1997 that it had over 2,100 jobs to fill in Grand Forks, compared with approximately 1,100 people who had registered for jobs.

"However," DeMers notes, "people took the first jobs they could. They may have been paid more money at first, but the jobs were temporary and disappeared after two years. A lot of people got carried away thinking they'd make big money, but should have looked longer-term."

Childcare for low-income families is washed away

In the aftermath of the flood, available jobs outnumbered the people who were available to do them. Due to a lack of childcare, filling those jobs was a challenge.

Keith Berger, director of Grand Forks County Social Services, notes, "Childcare was a real stumbling block in getting back to work. Many of the daycare centers went down, and when they tried to reopen, some of their workers were missing."

Right after the major flooding began, a big daycare center was established at the Air Force Base to handle the large numbers of families with children. Emergency daycare was also established on the west side of town, open to anyone regardless of income.

In East Grand Forks, TVOC had built a new Head Start building that narrowly missed getting flooded. When more than 300 family daycare homes were badly damaged by flood water, TVOC opened a communitywide childcare center in its building. DeMers observes, "It's the only time I can remember in my 35-year career where the business community helped out because they couldn't get employees. They contributed money and supported their staff in bringing their kids over. Without childcare, the labor for employers wasn't there."

TVOC's childcare center operated three shifts and used volunteers from Oklahoma and Arkansas to provide services. The agency became the conduit for more than $3 million in state funds to rebuild the childcare system, which took three years. Childcare providers who agreed to serve a certain number of children over a five-year period were allowed to receive forgivable loans for replacing materials and rebuilding basements. However, Hanson notes that in Grand Forks, smaller daycare providers never came back because they lost their facilities, and the cost of reopening wasn't worth it. The for-profit centers that exist today are too expensive for many low-income families, and the lower-cost facilities don't have the capacity.

Single mothers and the elderly are hard hit

Two researchers who have studied the effects of floods on vulnerable populations, Elaine Enarson and Maureen Fordham, point out that single mothers in the Grand Forks area "were highly represented in FEMA trailers . . . and were among the very last families to find other accommodation when FEMA closed its trailer parks. Asked where single mothers found housing eighteen months after the flood, a member of the service agency coalition responding to 'unmet needs' on a case-by-case basis, explained that many were 'scattered out in the small rural areas—in FEMA trailers but also scattered in other communities, just following low-income housing wherever they could.'"1/

When the flood hit, fragile elderly residents who had been residing in long-term care facilities or getting at-home health care were moved to facilities in unaffected areas of North Dakota. Many elders did not return to Grand Forks, but remained with family members in neighboring towns and cities, or stayed in the facilities to which they had been transported.

Of the elders who had been living in their own homes prior to the flood, DeMers notes, "We lost an awful lot of elderly poor who owned homes located near low-lying areas of the river. They were bought out at levels they should not have agreed to. Many moved away, and many just gave up the spirit and died."

Lessons for the future

In examining the flood relief efforts, a few key points emerge about what worked well, emphasized by the fact that no lives were lost as a result of the breaching of the dikes and the subsequent flooding. The Grand Forks area had a thorough evacuation plan and benefited from strong support at the federal level and effective collaboration at various levels of government. There was skilled, comprehensive assistance from disaster-response agencies, both governmental and voluntary. These levels of support combined to meet immediate needs during the crisis and implement plans that addressed issues after the first critical stage.

However, when people who work with low-income families examine the disaster response, they arrive at the following conclusion: While the Grand Forks metropolitan area performed fairly well in its overall response, low-income populations could have been better served with more targeted planning.

"If a community is to have an emergency preparedness plan to address all the needs after a disaster, it should not ignore the fact that it has a low-income population, and you have to be prepared to address their service needs as well as those of the non-low-income population," asserts Hanson of GFHA. "The renters and low-income service providers were left to fend for themselves."

DeMers of TVOC observes, "People who are poor, disconnected, ill-educated, old or infirm do not have the luxury of information, counsel, time, and access to power. Consequently, many poor folks were able to readily access immediate food, clothing and shelter, but did not make the best judgments about long-term decisions relative to things like employment and housing."

In summary, several lessons can be extracted from the events that transpired during and after the Grand Forks flood.

Lesson 1: Key agencies at every level should dedicate staff time and other resources for the use of up-to-date data to track who the low-income populations are and where they are, anticipate their needs in the event of a disaster, ensure the resources are in place to meet those needs, and deploy the resources should disaster strike.

Lesson 2: Use existing public assistance programs to follow up with low-income families who have left the community and provide them with information about available post-disaster programs and services. Such follow-up can enable these families to make informed decisions about whether, when, and how to return.

"Through TANF [the public assistance program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families], and programs in the Housing Authority, we track 85 percent of low-income families," says Hanson. "We should have used those resources to follow these families and try to bring them back."

Lesson 3: Earmark funds to help vulnerable people make quality decisions in areas that affect major aspects of their lives—not only in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, but over an extended period of time.

Lesson 4: Be aware that the loss of low-cost housing and commercial space will affect the availability of crucial resources and services that low-income families depend on, such as rental housing and childcare.

Lesson 5: When designing postdisaster recovery, ensure that plans for rebuilding and resource allocation take into account the circumstances of low-income families. The involvement of low-income people themselves, or their representatives, in the planning process can increase the likelihood that relevant, quality plans are produced. Enarson and Fordham recommend expanding community-based planning to include "agencies representing the needs and interests of battered women, the homeless, immigrants and refugees, single mothers, low-income families, and migrants as well as the elderly and disabled."2/

Lesson 6: Recognize that the crises low-income people face after a disaster are magnifications of the crises they grapple with on a daily basis. Issues that were lurking in the shadows will suddenly and forcefully emerge if efforts have not been made, predisaster, to address them.


1/ Elaine Enarson and Maureen Fordham, "Lines that Divide, Ties that Bind: Race, Class, and Gender in Women's Flood Recovery in the U.S. and U.K.," Australian Journal of Emergency Management 15 (4), 2001, p. 43-52.

2/ Ibid.

Minority groups find safety postflood

Before the 1997 flood, nonwhites accounted for less than 10 percent of the 60,000 people in the Grand Forks metropolitan area. Nearly all members of this minority population were American Indians or Latinos. Most of them were safe in the flood's immediate aftermath, thanks to generosity or fortunate timing.

American Indian residents of the Grand Forks area were able to flee to nearby reservations, where they were welcomed and provided respite by tribes such as the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, located in Belcourt, N.D. Much of the Latino population was made up of migrant farm workers who resided in the area during the sugar beet and potato growing season. They had not yet arrived in the Red River Valley in sizable numbers and were largely absent when the flood hit. Many of the migrants skipped the 1997 summer season, enabling them to avoid the upheavals of the first postflood year. However, some migrant families who returned in the summer of 1998 learned they no longer had trailers to live in for the season, because authorities classified the temporary residences as "second homes" and deemed their loss in the flood as ineligible for compensation. *


* Elaine Enarson and Maureen Fordham, "Lines that Divide, Ties that Bind: Race, Class, and Gender in Women's Flood Recovery in the U.S. and U.K.," Australian Journal of Emergency Management 15 (4), 2001, p. 43-52.

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