Bills roll in for Red River flooding

FEMA teams in Fargo-Moorhead
FEMA damage assessment teams began inspections of damaged homes and buildings in Fargo-Moorhead on Saturday, April 4, 2009. It's a preliminary assessment for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, to see if a disaster declaration is warranted.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Fargo city officials say turning the Fargodome into a sandbag factory made it possible for volunteers to produce 3.5 million sandbags in a week to save their city.

But that great idea comes with a cost -- a half- million dollars to clean the dust that coats everything inside the building.

That's one example of the bills that are starting to arrive.

Volunteers  fill sandbags at the Fargodome Sunday
Volunteers hustle to fill sandbags at the Fargodome on Sunday, March 29 2009. The goal at this point was to stockpile them for any area of the city that might need them.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"We're thinking when it's all said and done, if you add up what the (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers), the National Guard, FEMA and the city have done, without even figuring out what the loss of business revenues are, we're going to be fast approaching $200 million for this project," said Fargo City Adminstrator Pat Zavoral.

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Zavoral says Fargo's share of that will be about $20 million. Those costs will keep going up as the city works to prepare for a second crest next week.

"This is why cities need good (budget) reserves," said Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger. "Because you may find yourself in a case where you had not intended to spend $1 or $3 million on a flood fight, but you have too."

The bills are just starting to roll in, according to Redlinger. He thinks the city's share for the first round of the flood fight will be in the $3 to $5 million dollar range.

Several federal agencies help pay the cost of flood preparation.

The Army Corp of Engineers pays to build earthen levees. FEMA will reimburse the cities for 75 percent of the cost of preparing for the flood.

Placing weights on plastic to hold it down
National Guard troops place large sandbags on plastic to prevent the wind from blowing it away on March 30, 2009. The plastic is to help preserve the man-made levees and dikes in Fargo, N.D., as a winter storm moves into the area.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

But Redlinger says some things happen during the flood fight that likely won't be reimbursed. He says the city law enforcement center had to be quickly evacuated when it appeared the lower level might flood.

"We literally had to cut the cords as we were on the way out pulling computers and other IT assets out of the building as we were preparing for a move to higher ground," Redlinger said. "There will likely be those things we just had to do in haste that won't be eligible for reimbursement."

There are also the indirect costs. Many streets in Fargo-Moorhead have gaping potholes after a week of pounding by heavy trucks loaded with sand and clay. Street crews who were busy with the flood fight are now trying to catch up patching potholes.

Then there's the damage to homes. For those people to get federal aid, President Obama must issue a disaster declaration for individual assistance.

FEMA damage assessment teams spent the weekend gathering information on damaged homes.

"This is a preliminary assessment to see if a declaration is even warranted," said FEMA spokesman Mike McCormick. "The purpose of this inspection is to gather information for the governor of Minnesota. And on the basis of that information, once it's compiled and analyzed by his people and ours, then he can decide if he wants to ask for an individual assistance declaration."

Makeshift levee
In south Fargo, the Army Corps of Engineers dug pits in the Rose Creek golf course on March 24, 2009, to quickly build a levee designed to protect several hundred homes from overland flooding.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

McCormick says the goal of their survey is to get a general idea of the level of damage to individual homes.

Gov. Pawlenty's request for individual assistance could come as early as this week. Officials say several hundred homes sustained damage in the Fargo-Moorhead area and surrounding small towns.

The flood also slowed the area economy to a crawl for several days.

Fargo city officials strongly encouraged businesses to close for two or three days to limit traffic congestion.

The loss to the Fargo-Moorhead business community because of the flood is estimated at about $100 million, according to University of North Dakota Economics Professor David Flynn. "At full steam, in that Fargo-Moorhead metro area, that's two days of output," Flynn said. "So I think it's a minor hiccup now, but we're not completely out of the woods. We need to see what's going on. We need to see what kind of federal assistance dollars come in and how those get spent."

Flynn says if homeowners get assistance to repair their homes, local businesses will benefit. But if local residents busted their budgets fighting the flood, consumer spending could slow for months.

City officials say totaling all the flood costs could take a year.

There's the still unknown cost of reclaiming school yards, soccer fields and golf courses dug up to build levees. And of course there's the cost of hauling away all of those temporary earthen levees and millions of sandbags.

Before any of that work can begin, there's another flood crest to prepare for, and more money to be spent.