In Moorhead, home buyouts give flood-weary families relief

Surveying the Red River
Rich Pemble surveys the flooding Red River from the site of his family's former home at 2411 South Rivershore Drive in Moorhead on Friday, April 8, 2011. Pemble and his wife, Helen, sold their home to the city of Moorhead and moved to Fargo.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

After living in their quiet south Moorhead neighborhood along the Red River for 25 years, watching their house demolished was traumatic for Richard and Helen Pemble. Last year, the retired couple took a buyout from the city and moved.

They come back here every day, without fail, just to have a look. Richard stood on top of a huge clay dike that was once his front yard. The rising Red River laps just a few feet away.

"There's our raspberry bushes," Richard Pemble said. "This was our garage. This was our walkout basement that flooded twice. And we probably sandbagged, in 25 years, I probably sandbagged maybe six times."

Helen Pemble stared out at an oddly shaped oak tree. Its trunk seems to grow out of the floodwaters in a spot that was once their back yard.

"That's the first thing we saw every morning," she remembered. "It was right out our bedroom and it was always filled with squirrels and birds, and because it's still there, we know that this is the only thing that makes us know that this is our home."

This dike is temporary, but the city plans to make it permanent. Richard Pemble says he misses the neighborhood, but is glad he won't have to fight another flood, like the one that the people who still live along the Red River are confronting this spring.

"For me, it's just a relief that I'm not doing this," Richard Pemble said. "I mean, that's a huge job, and the stress of having been flooded twice obviously, and the stress of potential flooding again is pretty intense."

Site of old home
Flood water from the rising Red River occupies what was the Pemble family's house, located at 2411 South Rivershore Drive in Moorhead, on Friday, April 8, 2011.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

While the Pembles couldn't stay away from their old neighborhood, their former neighbor from a few houses down couldn't bring herself to come back. Today is the first time Barbara Sipson has returned to Rivershore Drive since she and her husband took a buyout and left last fall.

Sipson said she just couldn't deal with the emotions.

"Sad, sad for me," she said. "That's why I couldn't come back. It's the loss of a way of life and the loss of a neighborhood. I mean, I'm so grateful that we're not out lifting sandbags or doing all that this year, but it's just very hard to be leaving the neighborhood and the way of life."

The Sipsons and the Pembles are among more than 100 property owners who've accepted buyouts from the city of Moorhead since 2009. The city spent about $18 million on the acquisitions. Some of that was local funding, but most came from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"It really was a critical part of the strategy," said Michael Redlinger, Moorhead city manager.

Redlinger said there are about 40 more property owners who are ready to sell. Moorhead has requested $16.5 million from the state this year to acquire more properties and put up more permanent levees. With Minnesota's huge budget deficit, it's unclear how much of that money the city will get.

Rich and Helen Pemble
Rich and Helen Pemble visit with Jeff Lockhart, far right, at his home on South Rivershore Drive in Moorhead on Friday, April 8, 2011. Lockhart helped the Pembles sandbag their home last year - and other years as well. Isabelle Lockhart, 11 months, is playing on the floor.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

Redlinger said buying up flood-prone homes is money well spent, because it reduces the need for sandbags and makes flood response easier.

"We believe we have a window of opportunity and a window of time to be able to get a lot of this work done," he said. "The dollars that are here today may not be here tomorrow, so now is the time to act."

Moorhead city officials say they'll use about a million fewer sandbags this year than they did in the record flood of 2009. The National Weather Service says the Red River could crest late Saturday — a day earlier than expected — at around 39.5 feet. That would be more than a foot below 2009's record level of 40.8 feet.

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