Toil, hope, frustration mark Grand Forks recovery

Edward Lotterman | Agricultural Economist

Published July 1, 1997  | July 1997 issue

For a stranger passing through Grand Forks on Gateway Drive (U.S. Highway 2), there are few obvious clues to alert her that this city suffered a flood of historic proportions. Auto and truck traffic is heavy, businesses are open, there is the normal hustle and bustle of a growing, prosperous regional center.

But if one turns a few blocks to downtown or into a residential neighborhood, the scene is suddenly different. Downtown, empty storefronts are visible through plate glass windows, municipal and county buildings are surrounded by piles of warping doors, plaster, and ruined furniture. The only people visible are workers wheeling out additional loads of debris.

In some neighborhoods, nearly every driveway has a parked travel trailer with a picnic table outside, and lengths of PVC pipe leading wastewater to the curb. Warped garage doors and waterlines on siding show how high the flooding came. Utility crews and contractors are visible everywhere, struggling to replace a ruined gas distribution system before the winter. Some houses are abandoned, virtually all have orange placards in a front window describing their status.

Across the river in East Grand Forks, the damage is even more striking. Some houses near the river sag over collapsed basements. An entire neighborhood is still cordoned off with yellow plastic streamers and earth berms across streets to keep out sightseers or worse. A downtown bank displays a brave "We're open" banner, but most businesses are still closed. A forklift operator unloads tons of drywall from a railcar. He already has large piles on the ground, but two full cars still await him.

The economic contrasts in the Grand Forks area are often as sharp as the physical ones. Some stores are bustling with customers while their counterparts across the street stand empty and abandoned. "We only had three inches of water on our floors," says a pawnshop owner. "Business has been good, between people pawning things for some immediate cash, and other people buying used electronic equipment to replace items that were ruined."

But other businesses are not so fortunate. "We didn't have any power for over three weeks," says the manager of a fast food outlet, "We will never make up those sales."

Ironically, with some businesses still shut down, one of the most pressing problems is a labor shortage. "We were down to 2.9 percent unemployment before the flood," says Larry Anderson of Job Service of North Dakota. "Then we lost the students who normally would have worked through the summer or who would have worked part time while attending the summer session, which was canceled."

The closing of many day care facilities due to flood damage is another complicating factor. "I have a clerk who had to quit because she has no place to leave her kids," says an East Grand Forks retailer. While the state of Minnesota recently stepped in with a $450,000 grant to reestablish day care services in that town, the contraction in day care services continues to be a problem for many working families.

There are also interactions between housing damage and the labor supply. Bruce Gjovig, of the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota, describes the dilemma: "Much of the housing that will not be rebuilt was our low-cost housing for younger working families. It was low-cost because it was older and less well maintained. But it was cheap. But the cost of replacing it is higher than it was worth before the flood. So even if a family gets insurance or disaster assistance payments equal to their losses, they cannot afford to go out and buy an equivalent house. And we can't get people to come here to work if there is no place for them to live."

"We are going to have to bite the bullet on manufactured housing," is Tom Clifford's view. Clifford, president-emeritus of the University of North Dakota and chair of Grand Fork's Mayor's Commission on Business Rehabilitation, touches a controversial point. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is funding the construction of mobile home parks in both North Dakota and Minnesota to provide interim housing.

But there is controversy about whether such facilities should be short or long term. Some members of the community and local government officials see developments with mobile homes or other manufactured housing as only a temporary stop-gap. If they are short term, they should be located in industrial areas, constructed in tight rows with minimal amenities. But others argue that if the community will have a shortage of moderate-cost housing for years, resources should be allocated to constructing manufactured housing developments that would serve over the long term, with larger lots, curved streets and some landscaping.

Reconstructing public facilities can also be fraught with controversy. Nearly all of the schools in the area received some damage, and at least five Grand Forks schools will not be ready in time for school. Some sustained heavy damage and probably should be replaced. But a rational replacement of facilities that were built up over nearly a century means that they might not be rebuilt in the same locations, particularly when many of the neighborhoods they served are outside proposed new dike systems. But the disappearance of a neighborhood school is always painful for the neighborhoods involved, and politically sensitive. Decisions must be made expeditiously, with little time for much citizen input and at a time when many citizens feel overwhelmed with decisions of their own.

The largest public project is some structure to prevent similar flood damage in the future. A number of alternatives are under review, including an enlarged dike system and a large floodway channel extending around the urban area through Minnesota farmland. "A ring dike would just put a noose around future growth," argues businessman Hal Gershman, who favors a floodway similar to that which apparently worked well for Winnipeg, Manitoba, this spring.

Either approach must pass cost-benefit analysis by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the floodway is more expensive. Corps analysis procedures do not incorporate such intangibles as constraints on future development. In the meantime, some families and businesses must postpone decisions to rebuild homes and workplaces pending decisions on which alternative is chosen.

But life goes on in the midst of uncertainty, and each day more and more things return to normal. Area residents' determination is evident in the management of their household finances. "We were concerned that we might have a lot of people defaulting on payments or simply turning over the keys to damaged homes and cars," says Karl Bollingberg of the First National Bank of North Dakota. "That really hasn't happened yet. We have strong loan demand for rebuilding and replacement, but most people are keeping up on their loan payments."