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Flood Threat Creates ‘Psychological Roller Coaster’ in Minot, N.D.

June 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Souris River in Minot, N.D., hit a record high Friday and kept on rising. Margaret Warner and Minot City Council President Dean Frantsvog discuss what residents and the city are doing to quell the threat from flood waters.
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JIM LEHRER: Now the latest on the flooding overwhelming cities in North Dakota, including Minot.

Margaret Warner has our update.

MARGARET WARNER: The water is gurgling in some places and rushing in others, and all the residents of Minot can do is wait and watch. Today, the Souris River hit an all-time high, breaking a record set in 1881, and it kept rising.

MAN: We can’t do anything about it but accept it, do our best, and pray, pray, pray, you know?

MARGARET WARNER: The source of the misery lies in Saskatchewan, Canada, where heavy snowmelt filled reservoirs and sent a surge down the Souris into North Dakota.

Recent rain added to the flood, forcing Lake Darling to release water just 30 miles north of Minot.

MAN: This town is being evacuated, effective immediately.

MARGARET WARNER: More than 10,000 people, roughly a quarter of the city’s population, have been forced to evacuate so far this week, and more may follow.

WOMAN: Really scary, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. And I feel bad for everyone who is in the evacuation zones, because we have got family that’s living with us right now that’s in the evacuation zones. And it’s just a really hard thing to go through.

MARGARET WARNER: Shelter space is at a premium because housing in Minot was already in short supply, with an expanding air force base nearby and a boom in oil development in western North Dakota.

WOMAN: Everybody was booked up at the hotels and motels already, and so this was the perfect place to come back to.

MARGARET WARNER: For now, police in Minot have cordoned off parts of the downtown to help bulldozers get around, as they labor to build up earthen levees.

Other roads are cut off by the water, and some people have taken to getting around in airboats. But the worst is yet to come. The river is expected to rise another six or seven feet, before it crests, possibly by Sunday, and slowly begins to recede.

For more now on the latest on the ground from Minot, we’re joined by its city council president, Dean Frantsvog.

And Council President Frantsvog, thank you for joining us.

You were up in a helicopter today flying over the city. Give us a sense of what the scope of this flooding looked like as you looked down on your city.

DEAN FRANTSVOG, city council president: It’s devastating. We have got close to — between a third and a fourth of our people evacuated from their homes, and if you get up there and see, you see that many homes are already underwater. Some homes are beginning to go underwater. And some homes that have not been underwater or are not underwater at this point will be underwater soon. It’s devastation for our community.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is this noise I’m hearing behind you?

DEAN FRANTSVOG: Right behind me there’s a front-end loader and a couple of other pieces of equipment working on a dike to try to save a building right here.

I’m right across from City Hall, and they’re working to try and save that building before the water rises any higher. We expect the water to rise several more feet, probably seven feet more than it is right now. And our city is flooded now, but we expect that water to go up seven more feet.

And so people are working at a feverish pitch to do whatever they can. Right up until the water forces them out, you will see people working.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you anticipate that you might have to evacuate even more than the 10,000 who have already had to leave their homes?

DEAN FRANTSVOG: We don’t anticipate it, but we know that that’s a distinct possibility.

What we have in our city is two hills and a valley in between. And the valley is evacuated. And if the water got any higher, we would — would have some issues with more evacuations. But, right now — but, right now, we don’t see that happening.

We also warned the people on the outskirts of the evacuation zone that they should be prepared to evacuate. So, even if you’re not under a mandatory evacuation at this point, be prepared. Collect your belongings and be prepared to get out in a relatively quick manner if that evacuation order were to go down.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we understand there are not a lot of extra hotel rooms in Minot, in the area. Where are people going, these 10,000 people?

DEAN FRANTSVOG: Actually, it’s probably over 11,000 people, but that’s the great thing about our community, is you see 11,000 people be displaced and out of their homes.

And, right now, we have set up temperature shelters in Minot. The Red Cross has set up temporary shelters at both our university and at our Minot City Auditorium. Last night, we only had less than 250 people stay at those shelters, which I think is a testament to the type of people we have here in Minot and in North Dakota.

People are staying with friends, relatives, loved ones. And, in many instances, it’s people that they don’t even know that have just opened their homes to anyone who has been displaced by the flood. It’s a real — like I said, it’s a real testament to the type of people that we have here in North Dakota and especially Minot.

MARGARET WARNER: This is, as I understand, the second time since Memorial Day that many residents have had to flee the water. How are people coping psychologically with that?

DEAN FRANTSVOG: It’s a psychological roller coaster, to be honest.

We had — we had to evacuate. We let people back in, fortunately, with no flooding. We were able to keep the river in the banks. So that was a good thing. And the spirits were high, and we really did think that the flood fight was behind us. We thought we were over that hill.

And, unfortunately, due to huge massive rain events in the last week, we realized that we were in for just an enormous — something we could never prepared for, a lot of water coming our way.

MARGARET WARNER: It has been reported that only one-tenth, I think, of the people who lived in the valley, as described it, had federal flood insurance. Why is that?

DEAN FRANTSVOG: FEMA in 2001 — or 2000 — I don’t remember the exact year — changed the floodplain here in Minot. So flood insurance wasn’t required after that floodplain was changed.

So, at that point, people probably felt secure that flooding wasn’t a real possibility. And it’s been such a long time, and we have done — we have had flood protections put in place since our last major flood of 1969, so there was that security that people were feeling. And, like you said, probably less than 10 percent of the people have flood insurance here.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, what kind of help are you getting from either the federal government and also from surrounding communities in North Dakota?

DEAN FRANTSVOG: I tell you what. It’s been amazing, not only the surrounding communities. We have received phone calls and offers of support from municipalities, cities, small and large alike, all over the state.

On the statewide level, our governor and our North Dakota National Guard has been outstanding. Right now, we have 750 National Guardsmen here in Minot on the ground, doing work, whether it’s building dikes, securing our areas. You name it, if there’s a request, they will fulfill it. It’s amazing. We’re just so appreciative of that.

On the federal side, we have got both of our senators and our congressman here in town today. They’re working on the FEMA side of things, making sure that we’re jumping through all the hoops that we need to jump through and crossing all of our T’s and dotting the I’s to make sure that, when and if that FEMA assistance is necessary — and it will be — that we’re prepared for it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, Councilman Frantsvog, good luck. And thank you so much.

DEAN FRANTSVOG: Thank you. We need it.