New year brings hope for flood victims

Melanie Evans

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. — Scott Balek’s first trip back home to First Street following the April 18 flooding was to clean out the few remaining items that survived the river water that touched his bedroom’s second floor windows.
A few weeks later, Balek, a University junior, visited his grandmother’s house in Warren, Minn., where his family was storing and cleaning the little they had left.
In the following months, Balek’s father and stepmother remained in Warren, commuting when necessary and looking for a new home in a tight housing market. The day before Thanksgiving the Baleks’ home on First Street was demolished by the city.
But this Christmas, Balek returned to East Grand Forks to a split-level on 17th Street. The family’s holiday was filled with bittersweet reminders of the house on First. Among them were the family’s Christmas tree ornaments, saved from the flood by the plastic containers in which they were stored for flood preparation.
University students returning to Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., this holiday found empty shops, leveled houses and steady signs of rebuilding and hope in their home towns.
The Baleks received one of 2,369 home loans allocated to Minnesota residents from the Small Business Administration through the Minnesota Division of Emergency Management.
Living with relatives, Scott’s father and stepmother avoided the temporary housing provided for flood victims by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As of December, close to 400 trailers and mobile homes remain occupied by residents of both cities.
But the Baleks’ new residence didn’t escape the Red River’s touch, either. With the help of a Lutheran Church in Sauk Center, Minn., who adopted the family, the Baleks finished remodeling their water-damaged basement in early December.
For the Baleks and their neighbors, the new year begins the lengthy process of rebuilding as case workers from the federal, state and local level wrap up their emergency efforts eight months after the Red River rose to a record crest of 54 feet.
“Recovery is long-term for individuals, businesses and the community as a whole,” said Barb Fonkhert, an employee of the Minnesota Division of Emergency Management.
A 17-year veteran of the Red Cross, Fonkhert described the difference between April’s devastation and the Mississippi River’s damage to the Midwest in 1993, as a “quantum leap.”
As residents of the Sherlock Park neighborhood, only blocks from the levees, the Baleks’ home bore the brunt of last spring’s flood waters. The couple was offered and accepted the city’s buyout for their home.
Although his family misses their old home, Scott Balek’s understated sense of humor has made the year’s changes easier for him.
“They don’t plow like they used to,” Balek said while standing on the cracked and gravel-covered asphalt outside the lot where his family’s house once stood.
Piles of rusted metal and molding cloth lay in heaps at the roadside next to the once-soggy skeletons of computers, water heaters and refrigerators.
Residents were asked to strip their homes of what remained and pile the contents at the edge of the street for health reasons.
Balek’s family left their water-damaged belongings inside their house.
“It was only more hard work and heartache to pile them up on the curb,” he said.
Balek’s stepmother, Vodi Balek, underwent a total hip replacement the Monday before the flood. Preoccupied by the surgery, the family had enough time to rescue their cat, the family’s two cars, and place a few items in plastic containers on the second floor.
“I left not knowing I would never see my house again,” she said. “We believed in those dikes.”
During the summer months, Grand Forks spent $250,000 replacing and repairing the dike system while the Army Corps of Engineers, working with city engineers, prepared new alignments for the levees.
Uncertainty delayed downtown redevelopment as local businesses speculated how many city blocks would be reappropriated for the new levee alignments.
Residents received some answers at a Dec. 10 briefing with the Army Corps of Engineers. At the meeting, the corps proposed two flood control plans.
Included in the plans are the new levee alignments for the north side of both cities.
The complete proposal, including the southern alignment, will be known on Wednesday, said Lisa Hedin, project manager for the corps. It will then be up to the city councils to vote on a final blueprint.
In order to receive federal money for the reconstruction under the Water Resources Development Act, the cities must decide by Feb. 28.
No matter what the city councils decide, “It’s going to be different — very different,” said Christi Stonecipher, Grand Forks special projects coordinator.
Moving on
Everywhere there are reminders of the flood. The brown stripes of receding water lines remain on a white picket fence.
The door of a colonial brick two-story house is left open unseasonably in the December air. Inside, a warped piano, minus its legs, lies in the middle of an empty, dusty floor. Vacant houses stand next to empty lots where houses stood.
The sight of familiar houses and neighborhoods disappearing after demolition is emotionally draining, said Nancy Swerdlow, assistant executive director of the North Dakota chapter of the Red Cross.
“It was terrible seeing them ruined. Now I just want to see (the cleanup) finished so I can get on with my life,” she said.
The transition has been difficult for Swerdlow, a resident of East Grand Forks since 1984. In emergencies, she often travels to distant towns to help with disaster scenes.
“It’s different going to your own,” she said.
The Red Cross annual holiday request for donations went out three weeks late this year, because of the ongoing recovery efforts, Swerdlow said.
Yet three days after the initial mailing, 50 envelopes returned, a higher than usual number, Swerdlow said. She attributes the quick response to the people’s generosity toward flood victims.
The organization has nearly recovered the $9 million it spent for initial emergency shelters and needs.
Swerdlow said relief assistance has shifted away from necessities to building aid.
The Grand Forks donated goods warehouse on Highway 2, once stocked with clothing and food, now houses paint and sheet rock.
The desolate and the revitalized sit side by side in downtown Grand Forks. Empty storefronts on DeMers Avenue face an elegant antique shop that reopened in October.
Blocks from the now frozen river, only a handful of shops have returned. A skyway leads to open air. To combat the stark streets, a web of white lights hangs between buildings and entwines the trees. At night the glow can be seen across the river.
The lights are only a part of the city’s $200,000 effort — called Street Scape — to call attention to the downtown Grand Forks rejuvenation after last April’s fire and flooding in the city’s center, said Tom Mulhern, communications officer for the city.
“The program is for the psychological well-being of the citizens,” Mulhern said.
The project is modeled after revitalization efforts in other cities around the nation, said Mulhern. In addition to the lights, the city hung holiday decorations inside buildings and built an outdoor skating rink, lit by white lights strung through the surrounding trees.
But it is perhaps the symbols of citizens’ optimism that add the most color to the city’s holiday celebrations.
The first place in the annual New Year’s First Night Greater Grand Forks ice carving contest: a crystalline reproduction of Noah’s Ark landing on a dry beach.