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Four-wheel drive pickups drive east from Oslo on Minnesota Highway 1 in April 2019. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Floods of past and present bring attention to flood insurance

Emily Montgomery, like most long-time Grand Forks residents, can vividly recall the Flood of 1997—the one that devastated the city, leaving much of it a waterlogged shambles. One of her clearest memories is of local schoolchildren sent to finish the year in Thompson, displaced by the same floodwaters that brought President Bill Clinton and the attention of the nation to North Dakota.

Montgomery spoke with Prairie Business in November, when she was the outgoing executive director of the Empire Arts Center. Besides her own memories of the flood, she can compellingly tell the history of the theatre, too. It was undergoing renovations when the flood struck, she said, and the water caused six figures in damage to the new work. The historical seats in the theatre had narrowly survived—shipped out to Wisconsin for refurbishing just before high water struck. 

“There was a conversation in the community after the flood over whether or not to rebuild downtown,” Montgomery said. “The Empire was one of the first buildings to say, no, we are going to survive this setback. We are digging our heels in, we are investing in this historic space and the historic downtown.”

The story of the Empire is tightly bound up in the story of Grand Forks—how the community rebounded from destruction and came to rebuild itself. 

But the story of the Empire is also very much about how the community has changed since. 

Grand Forks went on to build a floodwall protecting it from the nearby Red River. Much of its downtown was rebuilt. Where Lincoln Drive Park now rolls down from Belmont Road, an entire neighborhood has vanished.

And in the years since, the memory of the flood has begun to fade.

Blue Weber is the executive director of the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association. He said he’s watched as the city has learned to live with the river that now flows harmlessly past the city. In 2011, he remembers deep anxiety about what high waters might do. Now, that’s mostly gone. 

“This spring, when he had pretty much the same kind of flooding, people were walking over the wall and out on the river and taking a look at it,” Weber said. “It was the first time I’d seen this community not being terrified of what (the flooding might cause).”

And at the Empire Arts Center, Montgomery didn’t immediately know whether or not the Empire Arts Center—once devastated by the floodwaters—had flood insurance. She was quick to point out that, while the center does carry various kinds of insurance, flooding just isn’t something that enters the local consciousness as much anymore.

”Flooding doesn’t seem like a super-real threat,” she said.

There is a complicated relationship between the rivers of the upper Midwest and its residents. At the middle of that relationship is a somewhat mundane—but extremely important—calculation. Will it flood this year? 

It’s a perennially pressing question. Oslo, Minn., has become an island amid local floodwaters multiple times in the last decade. Just this fall, Blizzard Adam blew through the upper Midwest in October, dropping heaps of snow and making national headlines. In South Dakota, the Federal Emergency Management Agency noted in August that a federal program had received hundreds of flood insurance claims, paying out nearly $4 million, referencing profound flooding through the area.

“More than half of those claims were for property that was not in a high-risk flood zone...” the FEMA announcement reads. “Most came from communities that were not designated for FEMA disaster assistance to homeowners and renters.”

Barry Wilfahrt, the President and CEO of Grand Forks’ local chamber of commerce, pointed out that if a wet winter follows the wet autumn, local landowners might have cause to worry. 

Professionals close to the insurance industry encouraged everyone to think about flood insurance, especially because of waiting periods that last from the purchase of the insurance until when it takes effect. According to FEMA, it’s often 30 days. That means that if it floods in early April—and the insurance wasn’t purchased until late March—then a policyholder might be just plain out of luck. 

Those same professionals also described the flood package that’s insured by the federal government, and, for rates that are often as low as $500 a year—depending on where the property lies—offers $250,000 of protection on property and $100,000 on its contents. 

South Dakota has been a hot spot for flooding for much of the year, with major flooding occurring in spring and late summer. And though farmers’ crops are typically not protected with flood insurance, but with other programs, they’re still feeling the economic effects of severe weather.

"What's crazy is we saw water like this already this spring, and that was way beyond anything anybody had seen," southeastern South Dakota farmer Jim Petrik told United Press International. "Now, six months later, it's all water again. It's almost Biblical out there."

The toll has been serious. Holly Rader, agribusiness division manager for the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, worries that local suicide rates in local agriculture are increasing. 

“It’s been a hard year. Truthfully, it’s hard to describe it if you haven’t seen it. It’s hard to describe in words, because it’s something I personally have never seen in my lifetime,” she said. Amid that concern is a bit of hardy optimism, though it’s muted: “I know where they come from, and I know they’re not going to give up. And our farmers will be doing what they do best, and that’s producing for us.”

Stories like those are the kind that lead Jon Godfread, North Dakota’s insurance commissioner, to recommend everyone be constantly keeping tabs on their insurance policies. 

“If the water’s coming into your basement, it’s too late,” he said. 

It can be hard to reconcile the danger floods pose to the upper Midwest—especially in parts of South Dakota—with some of the more relaxed attitudes of landowners in places like Grand Forks. But there are plenty of local landowners who feel perfectly safe, and perhaps quite reasonably so. After all, there are millions upon millions of dollars in investments in flood protection all around the city. What’s there to worry about? 

“We have the flood rating that we have because of the protection,” said Josh Brown, a personal insurance manager and an agent for Bell Insurance—as well as the local Chamber’s board chairman. ”But if something horrible happens and that gets breached, it’s ‘97 all over again.” 

And, as Montgomery points out, even though the floodwaters have receded—and even though there’s far less worry nowadays about high water—the trauma of the flood lingers. She’s watched as city leaders have hotly debated updates to the downtown area, something she speculates is a result of Grand Forks’ shared sense of anxiety. 

“I think people in Grand Forks tend to balk at changes,” Montgomery said. “(And) to me I think that attitude is rooted in the trauma of the flood, and what I think they’re averse to is the risk of losing something again.” 

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