Buying out homeowners to make flood fighting easierby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Moorhead, Minn. — From the back deck of Brian Witthoeft's home in south Moorhead, the Red River is usually about a football field's length away. Now, all of Witthoeft's back yard is under water. The river is just a few feet from his home.
"The river channel is out 250 feet from our house," he says. "So we've had 190 feet of shoreline ate up over the last few days."
Brian Witthoeft and his family have lived in their split-level home for 11 years. This is the fourth major flood they've had to fight. And if the river reaches its predicted crest this weekend, all four will be among the top 10 floods in recorded history.
During last year's record flood, most of the family evacuated. This year, the Witthoefts feel much more optimistic. The weather has been better, they've had more time to prepare, and the water isn't expected to be nearly as high as last year.
Ten-year-old Nick Witthoeft helped his dad build the wooden structure that's holding back the floodwater. They put up the barrier weeks ago. Nick says he's sure it will hold. He's not worried about what happens this weekend.
"We're a lot more prepared and we were expecting it, so it's just been a lot easier and we aren't panicking, even though it is coming up as fast, if not earlier, we aren't panicking, because we know what's going on," he said.
Another reason the Witthoefts feel better about doing battle with this latest flood is the sense that it just may be their last flood fight. Theirs is one of about 45 homes the City of Moorhead wants to purchase and remove this year. That's in addition to the 49 homes the city already bought over the past year.
The homes will all be moved. In some cases, they'll be replaced by a permanent levee to protect the rest of the neighborhood.
Brian Witthoeft said a city buyout would mean he'd be done with flood fighting for good.
"We're excited about it, actually. The value of the property has gone to pieces. These homes along the river with low, walk-out basements -- it would be hard to sell them for a third of what the taxable value is on them," Witthoeft said. "The city can, if they get funding through the state, they can give us taxable value for the homes, which is a very fair deal for most of us."
The home right next door to the Witthoefts is also on the list of homes targeted for a city buyout. Julie and Mark Houglum have lived there for three years. During last year's flood, the Houglum's lost their battle. Their flood barrier leaked and the basement filled with water.
Julie Houglum says she has mixed feelings about selling out to the city. She loves her home and doesn't want to leave, but at the same time, she's tired of dealing with floods.
"You just don't want to have to be doing this every year, uprooted and worrying and, you know, it just takes a lot out of a person," she said. "If there's a buyout, we'll probably go for it. We don't want to fight the river. The river usually wins, but hopefully not this year."
Right now it's not clear if the city will have the money to buy more homes and remove them from the flood plain. Neighbors say they expect to hear something in the next few months.
The state bonding package that was recently signed by the governor includes $63.5 million for flood control measures statewide. Moorhead officials say they'll ask for $22 million from that fund.
That would cover some additional infrastructure improvements in the city, as well as the purchase of the flood-prone homes. Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland says buying up those homes makes sense.
"The goal is to be able to respond quicker to a rise in the river and to use less resources," he said. "We've dramatically cut down the number of sandbags we need simply because taking 45 houses out of harms way is just a lot less sandbags. By buying another 40 to 45, we again cut down on the number of sandbags that we have to have again, making it faster that we can protect our city from high water from the Red."
Moorhead officials are hoping to keep most of the purchased homes on the tax rolls by moving them to other locations in the city.
Across the river, Fargo purchased 24 flood prone homes. They'll be demolished to make way for permanent levees.
- All Things Considered, 03/19/2010, 5:54 p.m.