FEMA Preparing for Spring Floods in North Dakota

February 12, 2009

With record snowfall in North Dakota this winter and traditionally heavy snow months still to come, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is getting prepared to help state officials deal with spring flooding.

FEMA officials from Denver traveled to North Dakota last week to meet with state emergency workers and officials from the Devils Lake region.

If there is an emergency this spring, “we’re already in place to some degree,” FEMA spokesman Jerry DeFelice said. “Part of this is an outgrowth of (Hurricane) Katrina. Step it up a little … be a little more vigilant.”

The National Weather Service says Devils Lake is almost certain to rise to a record level, flooding more land, putting more homes in jeopardy and threatening anew such infrastructure as roads and bridges.

“I think we’ve always expected this,” said FEMA spokesman Tom Bush. “I don’t think we ever put it out of our mind. It’s always been on the radar.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, separately from FEMA, is determining what lake elevation will trigger a raising or expansion of the 8-mile dike that protects the city of Devils Lake. A decision could come this month.

In eastern North Dakota, communities are keeping an eye on the Red River. The latest weather service outlook puts the chance of flooding at more than 90 percent in the Fargo area, and at about 50 percent in Grand Forks, Wahpeton, Grafton, Drayton and Pembina.

Barbara Fitzpatrick, a flood insurance specialist with FEMA, said other parts of North Dakota also could see flooding, including some areas that usually are high and dry in the spring.

“The amount of snow we have now is reminding people of ’97,” she said, referring to the year of the Red River Valley flood disaster that devastated Grand Forks.

Forecasters say North Dakota’s larger cities, especially Grand Forks, have made major improvements since then, and flooding this spring might take a heavier toll in rural areas.

FEMA plans to monitor the effect of infrastructure improvements since 1997.

“Our hope is improvements we’ve done in the past years will hopefully prevent damages this year,” Bush said.

He said FEMA has not been able to help with snow removal in North Dakota this winter because federal law requires a one-, two- or three-day record event before FEMA can provide aid. Long-term records, such as the ones Bismarck, Minot, Grand Forks and Fargo set for the month of December, do not qualify.

Fitzpatrick said North Dakota residents who might be at risk of spring flooding should consider buying flood insurance. Homeowner’s policies do not cover flooding, and there is a 30-day waiting period before a policy underwritten by the National Flood Insurance Program takes effect.

DeFelice said people also should not rely on disaster aid, even if it becomes available.

“Flood insurance can bring you back. Disaster assistance isn’t designed to do that,” he said.

FEMA is holding flood insurance training meetings with insurance agents in Bismarck, Minot, Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Fargo the first week of March, Fitzpatrick said. Public meetings also will be held in those cities that week.

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