After The Flood – Statistical Data Included

Catherine Siskos

DISASTERS | The waters have receded in Grand Forks, But the FINANCIAL SCARS run deep.

AT 3 A.M. on a chilly April morning, warning sirens sounded, signaling the worst: The swollen Red River was cascading over a 52-foot-high flood wall and onto the pancake-flat terrain of Grand Forks, N.D.

In their home atop a gentle knoll 400 feet from the river’s edge, Tom Reiten and his wife, Joan Abraham, had barely fallen asleep, having worked late into the night lugging as many of their belongings as possible to the second floor. They got up, and after driving Joan to stay with friends on the outskirts of town, Tom returned home to finish moving their possessions.

When he finally left 22 hours later, the floodwaters had breached the protective ring of 4,000 sandbags he had painstakingly built around his house and were lapping at his front door. In the street, ice chunks raced by in the current.

Tom, who once served in the Army Special Forces, was unfazed. Wearing a life preserver and fisherman’s waders, he wound a skein of rope around one shoulder and waded into the frigid, thigh-deep water. The current almost knocked him off his feet. It took nearly 20 minutes to walk the few blocks to higher ground, where he had left his car. Helicopters hovered overhead, and whitecaps foamed in the flooded streets. “It was bizarre,” Tom recalls. “Like something out of that movie Apocalypse Now.”

The date was April 19, 1997. The Red River, usually about 15 feet deep, crested at a towering 54 feet (the height of a five-story building) and forced 47,000 Grand Forks residents–90% of the town–to flee. Downtown, 11 buildings were destroyed by fires caused by a natural-gas leak. In the Lincoln Park neighborhood adjacent to the river, home to 380 families, only the rooftops of two-story houses peeked out above the murky water.

The Red River Valley flood, as it came to be known, ranks among the ten costliest natural disasters in the U.S. since 1989. Statistically, a flood of that magnitude is supposed to occur only once every 210 years. The devastation it spawned spread across three states and into Canada. In Grand Forks alone, flood-damage estimates exceeded $1.5 billion.

Four years later, the city’s recovery is a resounding success–at least on the surface. Given the speed with which the city rebuilt, Grand Forks has rebounded “faster than any other community I’ve seen,” says Ed Conley of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). About $500 million in aid poured into the city from federal and state governments and private sources, much of which the city used to replace its infrastructure without raising taxes. A citywide building boom includes hundreds of new houses, a collegiate-level hockey arena and a convention center.

Yet despite the outward signs of recovery, it could be five more years before the Grand Forks economy fully returns to normal, says Conley. Right now the city is in a fallow period after the infusion of new capital that immediately followed the disaster. A number of new downtown storefronts sit vacant. And the spanking-new houses conceal what Hal Gershman, president of the city council, calls a “hidden hurt”: Many families have yet to dig themselves out of the debt they took on to rebuild their homes and their lives. Some residents whose houses survived the flood became victims of its aftermath, as the city’s new flood-prevention program claimed hundreds of homes left standing.

About 90% of natural disasters in the U.S. are flood-related, and people are four times more likely to experience a flood than a fire in their lifetime. Yet flood damage isn’t covered by standard homeowners insurance. Only one in 16 Grand Forks households was protected by the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (see “UNCLE SAM TO THE RESCUE”), and even that didn’t cover the contents of basements. So residents had to tap other financial resources.

The Small Business Administration, for instance, made low-interest loans, generally at 3% to 4%, to cover the losses of individuals with good credit. In Grand Forks, where the median household income hovers at $36,000 a year, the typical family of four owes $12,000 in SBA loans. That doesn’t count credit card debt, the larger mortgages families had to take on to buy new homes, and other private borrowing. Many families raided their retirement savings. At the Village Family Service Center, financial counselor Marybeth Vigeland continues to see an average of four or five new clients a month who are drowning in debt. If budgets were tight before, the flood “just pushed them over the edge,” says Vigeland.

Assessing the damage

IT TOOK NEARLY a month for the floodwaters to recede enough to allow residents to return home to survey the damage. The Reitens’ house was still standing, although the basement had completely flooded and water had stood more than a foot deep on the first floor. While there was a chance that the city would buy and raze their house to build a new system of dikes, that wasn’t supposed to happen till 2003. So Tom and Joan borrowed a camping trailer from her parents, parked it in their driveway, and began to renovate their home. One of the few families that had flood insurance, the couple used their $67,000 settlement to repair structural damage and buy new appliances, while they prepared meals in the trailer and slept in a bedroom on the top floor of the house. Because they did most of the refurbishing themselves, they spent less than $5,000 out of pocket to repair damage not covered by insurance. Just before the first snows of autumn in 1997, they moved back in.

Across town, Linda and Mark Magness weren’t as fortunate. They returned as the floodwaters subsided to find their house uninhabitable, with hardwood floors buckled, joists compromised, and the three-car garage a pile of rubble. It took a day and a half just to pump all the water out of the basement. For the next week, the Magnesses and their two sons, who came home from college to help, put in 12-hour days mucking out the mud and salvaging what few belongings they could.

Compounding the damage was the loss of Linda’s downtown antiques shop, with about $100,000 of inventory. The Magnesses needed not Only a place to live but also a new home for the business. They were lucky enough to find scarce retail space for rent downtown, and for a year they lived in a small apartment above the shop. The Magnesses, who were still making payments on a $100,000 mortgage on their destroyed house, relied on $685 a month in rental assistance from FEMA to cover the apartment. With no income while her business remained closed, Linda borrowed $20,000 from Mark’s parents (which she repaid later in 1997 after her business reopened) and took out a $52,000 SBA loan to replace about 70% of her inventory.

Because Grand Forks had been declared a disaster area by the President, residents became eligible for two types of FEMA assistance. For those whose homes had suffered minimal damage, there were grants of up to $10,000 for repairs. Displaced families, like the Magnesses, were given rental assistance to cover the full cost of renting while they waited for their homes to be repaired or bought out. So few rental properties were left habitable that FEMA also set up mobile homes.

The city still had to decide how to spend the $171 million it had received in federal housing aid. Pat Owens, Grand Forks’ mayor at the time, had two concerns: to provide permanent housing and to ensure that the city wouldn’t be so vulnerable to flooding in the future. “The federal government couldn’t keep bailing us out,” says Owens.

The tension builds

AT A TOWN meeting in May, barely a month after the flood, residents packed into a school auditorium to hear the city’s plans. For residents of three neighborhoods adjacent to the river, the scene of the worst devastation, the news was grim. The city would not issue building permits for those areas, but would purchase more than 800 houses and turn the land into a park for the river to reclaim whenever it flooded. Displaced families could buy new houses in three subdivisions to be built well outside the flood plain. “Everybody was in shock,” says Joan Abraham. It was the first indication that she and her husband might lose their house, at the edge of the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

The city would first purchase those houses nearest the river that had been the most heavily damaged, followed by houses whose damages totaled 50% or more of their preflood value. Finally, the city would buy out homes with less than 50% damage that had to be torn down to make way for the new system of dikes.

Homeowners would receive a market price based on the value of their house the day before the flood, as determined by a team of appraisers. Owners who disagreed with the assessed price could appeal. For example, David Jensen hired his own appraiser because he believed the city was low-bailing the value of his Lincoln Park house. The city came back with a second offer that was about $15,000 higher, and Jensen took it. For the most part, “people were treated fairly,” says appraiser Joan Johnson. “If anything, there was a tendency to give a higher-than-market price.”

But a fair price didn’t always translate into a sweet deal. Displaced homeowners walked into an inflated housing market, in which the average sales price for new and existing homes in Grand Forks jumped from $67,000 before the flood to $80,000 by October 1997, and peaked at $100,000 two years later, according to real estate broker Skip Greenberg. In December 1997 the Magnesses sold their five-bedroom house to the city for $128,000 and then paid the same amount for a one-bedroom cottage that required $20,000 more to refurbish.

Homebuyers were also unhappy with the new subdivisions. Gone were the stately trees of the older neighborhoods, replaced by upstart seedlings. To coax buyers, the city offered vouchers worth $10,000 toward the purchase of an older home and $15,000 for a newly built house.

Most of the acrimony, however, surrounded the 200 homes that survived the flood but not the flood-protection plan. The city waited for some time while the Army Corps of Engineers mapped out where the new dike line should go. As areas were targeted for the new flood wall, neighborhood groups banded together to try to persuade city officials that they could save more houses by considering other locations for the dikes. “We would try to get our ideas across, but city officials wouldn’t listen,” says Gershman, who chaired a committee of private citizens before he ran for city council last year.

While the process dragged on, residents like the Reitens went ahead and repaired their homes. Others, who couldn’t afford to rebuild or were convinced that they’d eventually lose their homes anyway, gave up the fight and sold out early.

Last year, the city told Tom and Joan they would have to vacate their home two and a half years early, by this spring. The couple spent last summer and fall looking for ways to save their house; they even considered moving it to another location until that proved impractical. They haven’t yet agreed on a price with city officials. But with most midprice homes destroyed or bought up after the flood, Tom figures they may have to spend $40,000 more for a new home than they’ll receive for their old one, and take on a more expensive house when they’re just a few years from retirement. “We’re at an awkward age: too young to retire and too old to have a mortgage,” says Tom, who is 55.

A psychic toll

THE FLOOD HAS also taken a psychic toll. In Lincoln Park, an eerie network of driveways leads to empty lots where houses once stood. Wistful former residents take nostalgic drives through the old neighborhood and occasionally wash their car in what was once their driveway.

There is a lingering fear that the city could flood again. Despite moving residential areas away from the river and building a higher dike line further back from the shore, the city is still vulnerable to catastrophe, albeit one that is statistically unlikely. And yet, in 1998, barely a year after the great flood, Grand Forks dodged a bullet when the river rose to 45 feet, just nine feet shy of its 1997’record.

“The mood changes when it rains or snows here,” says Gershman. People become tense, short-tempered and stressed. If Grand Forks is inundated again, says city spokesman Kevin Dean, “people will pack up what few belongings they have left, and this time they won’t come back.”

–Reporter: ERIN BURT

UNCLE SAM TO THE RESCUE

Tax breaks and government-sponsored flood insurance will help bail you out financially from the devastating effects of a flood. But Uncle Sam’s generosity has its limits.

Flood insurance. Homeowners who live in one of 19,000 participating communities can buy government-backed policies directly from the National Flood Insurance Program, or through insurance companies and agents. If you live in a flood zone, you’re required to purchase insurance to qualify for a mortgage. Coverage is capped at $250,000 for a house’s structure and $100,000 for its contents. Premiums vary depending on your home’s location and the coverage amount, but they average about $300 per year. It takes 30 days for a new policy to kick in.

Policies don’t cover finished walls and floors in a basement, or any personal belongings stored there. Essential equipment such as the furnace and hot-water heater are insured under building coverage. If you want to be reimbursed for certain appliances in the basement, such as a washer, dryer or freezer, you must pay extra for contents coverage.

You can’t double dip in federally funded relief programs. If, for example, you are going to be paid for your house in a buyout plan, any money you receive from a flood-insurance settlement will be subtracted from the buyout price.

Tax relief. You can claim a tax deduction for an uninsured personal-property loss, but not for the full amount. To determine the deductible amount, reduce your total loss by $100, then reduce that amount by 10% of your adjusted gross income.

Generally, you can claim the deduction in the year that a flood or other natural disaster occurs. If, however, you live in a place that has been declared a disaster area by the President, you can elect to deduct the loss for the preceding year. If you have already filed your return for that year, filing an amended return showing the loss will trigger a refund check from the IRS.

Because tax forms, insurance claims and applications for government loans may require you to list property losses in detail, accurate and complete information is vital for getting adequate financial relief. Records are often destroyed in a disaster, so take precautions ahead of time.

That means making a list of what you own, as well as when you bought it, and how much you paid. It’s also important to get an appraisal for special items, such as antiques or artwork, especially if you want to make sure they’re adequately insured.

Finally, make a videotape of your house and everything in it. Store the tape, along with the inventory and copies of the appraisals, in a safe-deposit box at a bank in another town, or possibly even in another state. Should a disaster strike close to home, your bank could be a casualty as well.

COPYRIGHT 2001 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group