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From Hell and High Water, Grand Forks Continues Rebuilding

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Flooding can be the most insidious plague. Most times, you know it is coming, and you work like crazy to protect your home and your possessions. And yet still, all is sometimes lost.

Two and a half years ago, the people of Grand Forks, N.D. fought a tough battle against the rising Red River and never stood a chance. Today, they are in the middle of their biggest challenge: the process of rebuilding an entire city.

At first, the "New Grand Forks" bombed. A partnership between local contractors and the government created 187 homes in neighborhoods called Congressional One and Two.

"It was really difficult to entice those people to come out here and try to buy one of these houses," says public information officer Kevin Dean.

To sweeten the deal, they cut prices, offered incentives, threw in some appliances, and opened the market to everyone. But most people in flooded areas had paid off their modest homes. Congressional was out of their financial league.

Right next to the Red River is Lincoln Park. One day soon, it will be a fine addition to the Grand Forks park system. Before the flood, it was a neighborhood of 380 homes. After the flood, every one of them was bought out by the city of Grand Forks.

"It's like riding through a ghost town," Dean says. "It's a neighborhood that will never be again."

It was not the only neighborhood destroyed by the flooding. About 800 homes were condemned by the city. Most are long gone.

Grand Forks spent over $40 million acquiring properties, which led to a housing shortage. Real estate prices then boomed at a time when some people had nothing. First they were flooded out, and then priced out of the market.

Building inspector Bev Collings met many of them. At times popular, and at times unpopular, over time, many have seen the value of what she did. "A lot of people have come back a year later, years later, and said 'You did the right thing for me,'" Collings says.

Many had no choice but to take the buyout. If they lived in a flood plain and damage exceeded 50 percent of their home's worth, they could not rebuild; they were bought out.

Expanding the diking system meant more homes in the flood plain would have to be taken as well.

Now, almost everything is up to code. Everything is newer. Electric and gas bills are lower.

Collings says "you have to look at the silver lining." The area, she says, is much safer to live in now.

But not everyone agrees. There are people who have been left short. There is just a foot of difference between houses that still stand and those that were bought out. Dean says it was a really tough, but necessary, call.

The reality is there is not enough money to go around. "You can't lie to 'em. You gotta tell them the truth. And that's really hard to do sometimes," he says.

Two and a half years later, the scars of flooding are still fresh. But with every sunset, people in Grand Forks are one day closer to recovery.

"You want it to be over. And I can certainly empathize with that. I know how people feel," he says. "You can continue to know that there's going to be a future out there that's going to be better for you. It might take a while, but it's there."

Of the 178 houses built in Congressional One and Two, 41 are still for sale. As many as 500 families simply moved away from Grand Forks.


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