Levees will replace homes in Fargo-Moorhead neighborhoods

Oak Grove
This neighborhood will likely disappear over the next few years as the Fargo works to build a system of permanent levees.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Steve Poitras fought and won many battles with the Red River since 1978. But this year the river won big, and Poitras is ready to sell.

I get up in the morning and if the sun is shining and I see good things I tend to minimize the perils and maximize the joys.

"You see the top step going into my house. It was about seven inches above that. I took about six or seven inches on the main floor," he said. "The house looks pretty good from outside, but boy, it's messed up inside."

Poitras lives just north of downtown Fargo in the Oak Grove neighborhood. This neighborhood shrank when the city bought many homes after the 1997 flood, and what's left of this small neighborhood is likely to disappear when the city moves ahead with permanent flood protection.

After the 1997 flood damaged the sun room and basement, flood insurance helped repair the home, and Poitras rejected buyout offers from the city. But now, with the entire main floor flooded, has little choice.

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"It's a question of financial feasibility now, plus we don't want to go through it again," he said. "Certainly we treasured it for all these years. It's been great. Ultimately, you get fond of it, but it's still just a house. You can grow fond of another house I guess."

Steve Poitras
After living on the banks of the Red River for 30 years, Steve Poitras has decided to sell his home to make way for a permanent levee.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Poitras admits he'll miss the great bird watching and his wife will miss the big garden space, but staying near the river just isn't an option.

The buyout question is much less clear for the majority of residents along the river whose homes were not damaged.

Jim Papacek is a retired teacher who has lived alongside the Red River for more than 30 years.

When he bought the house, a 38 foot elevation was considered safe from flooding. After the 1997 flood, he built an earthen levee in the back yard. Still, this year it took a five foot wall of sandbags to keep the river at bay.

"Each year the Red River comes back a little bit stronger. There's not much fight left in me," Papacek said as he looked out the window at sandbags that still block his view of the river.

"My wife is terminally ill with cancer. Do we want to spend this time fighting, or do we want to spend this time enjoying the years we have left?"

Jim Papachek
Jim Papacek and his family have lived in this house on the banks of the Red River for 37 years. He doesn't want to leave his home, but isn't sure he has the energy to fight the Red River again.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

But Papacek said he loves living along the river, and watching the wildlife attracted to the river corridor. Some of his neighbors want to sell, others want to stay, and many, like him, are undecided.

"I get up in the morning and if the sun is shining and I see good things I tend to minimize the perils and maximize the joys," he said.

This neighborhood and others along the Red River have some time to consider the quandary.

Fargo and Moorhead will likely purchase a few flood damaged homes this summer, but according to Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral, most buyouts will need to wait.

A five foot wall of sandbags protected Jim Papacek's home this year. He loves living along the river, but doesn't know if he has the energy to keep fighting the river.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"In the end we really won't know anything until December of 2010 before we have a draft plan that has met all the environmental reviews that need to be done," Zavoral said. "That would be the time, if we get authorization from Congress, that we could proceed."

Permanent flood protection will take years to build, according to Zavoral, so some home buyouts could be five or six years away. The city will decide which homes to buy based on the final flood protection plan.

Back across the river in Moorhead, the city is encouraging anyone along the river to consider a buyout, even though final decisions on buyouts potentially won't be made for years.

Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger said fewer than a dozen homes are damaged badly enough to qualify for immediate buyouts, but more than 40 homeowners have requested a buyout.

Redlinger said a list of those willing sellers will help the city get funding for permanent flood protection.

"The thing we like about having the names on a list is that we can demonstrate to state lawmakers and the federal government that we have people that are willing and they're ready to sell if need be," Redlinger said. "There's no guesswork at all, we just know they're going to be there."

Redlinger knows there will be homeowners who don't want to leave their riverside homes. But he thinks they'll have a few years to think about it, and by next year there should be a draft plan that will give homeowners a better idea how their neighborhood will be affected by permanent flood protection.