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Grand Forks' historic flood stands as current model for disaster preparedness

Ten-year $412 million project halted the Red River

Grand Forks North Dakota Flood
Photo by CITY OF GRAND FORKS Some businesses closed up to a year due to April 1997 flooding in Grand Forks, N.D. The city's approach and management of a multifaceted flood-control revamp has been hailed as a model for disaster recovery.

Grand Forks, N.D., a community devastated in 1997 by floodwater from the Red River, today stands as a model for disaster preparedness and resiliency.

Working with federal and local governments and the community, Grand Forks completed its flood-protection project 10 years after the historic flood and now says it can withstand a 500-year flood event.

In the wake of recent U.S. disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, such efforts are crucial for cities, public entities and municipalities as they look to meld federal, state, city and community resources to mitigate potential catastrophes.

Since completion of the major flood-protection project, the city has been tested numerous times, notably in 2009 and 2011, when Grand Forks experienced its third- and fourth-highest flooding, respectively, resulting in no flood damage, said Kevin Dean, public information officer for the city of Grand Forks.

After the Red River flooded in April 1997, it was estimated that the city of Grand Forks — which had a population of 52,500 before the flood — would lose 25% of its population, Mr. Dean said.

There were 1,300 insurance policies issued by the National Flood Insurance Program at the time of the flood, said Kirk Nestaval, president of insurance agency Vaaler Insurance Inc., in Grand Forks, N.D.

Vaaler placed approximately 1,000 such policies, of which about 800 were homeowners policies and the remaining commercial policies, he said.

“So there were a lot of uninsured people,” Mr. Nestaval said.

Vaaler saw more than 4,000 claims within a week after the flood, most of which were for flooded automobiles and sewer backup claims, he said, noting that prior to the flood, local businesses did not purchase business interruption coverage.

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Some businesses experienced down times of nearly one year, said Lonnie Hoffer, disaster recovery chief for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services in Bismark, N.D.

Grand Forks residents and businesses anticipated that the city could withstand Red River flood water levels, “and they couldn't,” he said. “They planned for one level of water, and it ended up being more than what they planned for.”

The city faced a multitude of immediate priorities, such as emergency housing and environmental and infrastructure concerns.

“Where do you start?” Mr. Dean said, recalling the 1997 natural disaster. “We found that we kind of had to write the book as we went along.”

That's where the Federal Emergency Management Agency played a large role in Grand Forks' recovery process, he said.

“We learned the terms "safe,' "sanitary' and "secure' from FEMA,” Mr. Dean said. “They were interested in doing those three very basic things. By doing that, we were able to begin the process.”

City leaders created several committees that each dealt with specific priorities, such as housing, health and sanitation, and addressing needs of local businesses, among others, he said.

Because of these efforts, Grand Forks is a model for other communities when it comes to disaster recovery and preparedness, said Ed Conley, Denver-based external affairs officer for FEMA.

“Not just in terms of the specific projects that they did, but a model in terms of how they approach it and managed it — the leadership principles that they had in place,” Mr. Conley said, who managed the FEMA field office in Grand Forks during the 1997 flood.

The city focused on partnerships that extended throughout the community, involving elected leadership, the city council and major members of the private sector, Mr. Conley said.

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“At the same time, they made flood protection a priority as well. They didn't put it off,” he said, noting that Grand Forks planned its building decisions and infrastructure repairs around long-term flood protection.

The city also undertook a major study with consultants and architects, and visited other communities to examine potential flood mitigation solutions, considering flood walls, levies, and pump stations, among other solutions, at divergent channels.

“Most importantly, we looked at moving away from the river,” Mr. Dean said.

Through a combination of FEMA, State of North Dakota and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding, Grand Forks spent $40 million to acquire and remove 800 homes and 50 businesses in low-lying, high-risk flood areas.

“Some of the areas that were low-lying — that they just knew it would be difficult to protect, even with a real robust structural mitigation project — they went with the acquisition,” Mr. Conley said.

“It ultimately took our entire city limits out of the 100-year flood plain,” Mr. Dean said. “Anybody who had been required to carry NFIP (flood) coverage, no longer had to.”

In 2007, Grand Forks completed its $412 million flood-protection project, which consists of flood walls 10 feet wide and levees that span eight miles standing at a river gauge of 60 feet.

The system, funded in part by federal and state governments and a special tax assessment, includes a warning system and contingency and evacuation plans.

During the floods, “the general population of Grand Forks didn't notice any impact in their daily lives at all,” Mr. Dean said.

“We don't fill any sandbags at all anymore. Sandbags are a thing of the past for us.”

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