Living on the wrong side of the leveeby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Each time the Red River floods, crews in Fargo and Moorhead build temporary clay levees to protect the cities. Since the record flood of 1997, dozens of homes have been removed from flood-prone areas, and permanent levees have been improved. That made this year's flood fight easier.
City officials hope to buy out more homes along the river, to improve flood protection in the future. But a handful of Fargo homeowners say they'll stay in their neighborhood, on the wrong side of the dike.
Fargo, N.D. — The Red River snakes its way through the center of Fargo-Moorhead, constrained by a series of earthen levees. In some areas, the homes are too close to the river to build permanent levees.
Along one of the river bends, just north of downtown Fargo, is the Oak Grove neighborhood. Some of the homes here date to the early 1900s, but it's a much smaller neighborhood than it was a few years ago.
"There were 15 homes homes along here on South Terrace. Eleven of the 15 homes are gone. One was moved, 10 were just torn down," says homeowner Steve Poitras, as he steps over a sandbag dike across his front walk.
The homes were part of a government buyout offered after the neighborhood was flooded during the record flood of 1997, when much of this neighborhood was under several feet of water.
Most of the homeowners took the buyout, but four stayed. This year, when a temporary earthen levee was built to protect the city, three of those homes were on the wet side.
Steve Poitras and his wife Sue are among the holdouts.
"We pretty much feel like we're going to be living here until we're incoherent, or they haul us out feet first," says Steve Poitras.
He's lived in this quiet neighborhood along the Red River for 28 years. After conferring with his wife, Poitras refused to even consider a buyout offer from the city.
"When we learned other neighbors were going, I said, 'What would you choose to do? What would you think if every last one of our neighbors chose to accept the buyout? Would you still want to stay?' And she said immediately, 'Yes.' And I said, 'Well that's good enough for me,'" recalls Poitras. This year, Poitras built a sandbag dike a couple of feet high, and watched the flood go by from his deck.
These homes qualify for federal flood insurance, despite the fact they're on the wet side of a dike. Flood insurance is a requirement for thousands of people in Fargo-Moorhead. Most never collect on those policies.
Steve Poitras says flood insurance paid to repair his home after the 1997 flood. That's the only time he's had major flood damage in 28 years. Poitras concedes some people think he's crazy to stay in this flood-prone area.
"A friend said, 'Steve, why do you choose to stay here?' And I said, 'Well, come on over and take a look.' All you gotta do is come down here most months of the year. It's a pleasant and peaceful and beautiful place to live. This is lovely. It's kind of like living on a bayou right now," says Poitras with a chuckle.
During a flood, the Red River swirls past the deck outside his back door, but most of the year the Red River is a couple hundred feet away, and his big back yard is filled with birds and wildlife.
Next to Steve Poitras is an empty lot, left after a home that was part of the government buyout was removed. There's a small permanent levee across the lot. Trees have been planted and a bench sits atop the levee.
On the other side of the empty lot lives another holdout, Jim Opitz, who says he considered a buyout offer from the city. But after looking at other homes, he and his wife decided to stay along the river.
"You have three or four weeks now that are messy, dirty, hard work. But the other times it's just peaceful back here," says Opitz. "It's almost serene, like being out in the country, and you're sitting in the middle of town, almost downtown."
Opitz says it's a little disconcerting to see a temporary dike going up next to his house, which cuts him off from the rest of the city, knowing he's on the wrong side. But he says after fighting several major floods, he's confident he can protect his house. He says he really doesn't mind the flooding.
"Right now it looks pretty. It's up, but it's a pretty view of the area," says Opitz. "I'll see wood ducks swimming by here right behind my house. They're on the river all the time, but now they swim within 20 feet of my house. I'll be mowing lawn there in three or four weeks."
City officials hope to buy these three remaining homes and replace them with a permanent levee. But given the homeowners' attachment to their neighborhood and to the Red River, it's unlikely that levee will be built any time soon.
- Morning Edition, 04/11/2006, 6:55 a.m.