When the swollen Red River threatened his uninsured house last spring, all Mark Baumgardner could do was pack up, leave and hope he wouldn't lose everything.
In the end, his house was spared. But he learned a lesson: This year, he bought flood insurance.
"When the weather service started saying, `Yeah, it's going to be as bad as last year,' I decided I was going to get some peace of mind and be done with it," he said.
Thousands of people in flood-prone areas of North Dakota and Minnesota are purchasing flood insurance after gambling for years without it. The number of policies obtained through a government-backed program has ballooned since the 2009 deluge along the Red River, which runs between the two states.
In North Dakota, fewer than 4,000 residents had flood coverage before last year's disaster. That has more than tripled to over 13,000. In Minnesota, nearly 11,000 have insurance, up from about 9,000.
Residents are closely watching the Red River, which could spill over its banks again this year because of heavy snow cover and saturated soil. The Red is expected to crest on Sunday about 20 feet above flood stage, threatening houses and roads.
Last year it took 6 million sandbags to save thousands of homes from record flooding in Moorhead and neighboring Fargo, N.D., which together form a metropolitan area of about 200,000 people. About 100 homes were damaged and thousands of people were evacuated after the Red rose above the flood stage for a record 61 days and crested twice.
Flooding is a spring ritual in the Upper Midwest, and residents are well-versed in how to prepare. As a result, many homeowners did not think the danger was serious enough to get insurance.
That view is changing. After last year's torrents of spring, the Federal Emergency Management Agency held community meetings to explain that not having flood insurance is a risky move. The agency plastered the area with fliers and mailings urging homeowners to sign up for coverage.
Baumgardner and Fargo resident Gary Mailloux said they view the policies as a cheap investment. Mailloux bought insurance in 2008 and signed up again last September, six months after a frantic sandbagging effort saved his house.
"I think it only costs me 12 bucks a month," Mailloux said. "I waste money at a higher rate than that."
The average National Flood Insurance Program policy costs about $1 day and is determined by such factors as where the resident lives, the amount of coverage, the size of the deductible, and the age, elevation and structure of the home.
The policies are sold through insurance companies but are heavily subsidized by the federal government. Without government backing, many insurance companies would not even offer such coverage for fear of losing money.
Most claims in the program are paid out to about a half-dozen states that are often battered by hurricanes, with Louisiana, Texas and Florida at the top, said Jeff Klein, North Dakota's coordinator for the national flood program.
Now, even homeowners considered to be in safe territory are buying insurance in North Dakota, said Jerry DeFelice, FEMA spokesman. The number of policies in low-risk areas outside the flood plain is seven times higher than it was last year, he said. Nearly 6,600 residents have coverage this year in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
Whether they keep it is another matter.
Fargo resident Dick Hell bought flood insurance last year for the first time at the urging of his parents, whose house was among thousands wiped out in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn., during the Red River flood of 2007.
"My dad basically told me if I didn't get it, I was stupid," Hell said. "You feel better. You sleep better at night having it."
But Hell did not renew his insurance this year because he believes the river will crest before April 15, when his policy expires.
"I'm hedging my bet," he said.