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MINOT, N.D.—Quick! What major weather event took place in Minot, North Dakota, this year? Can’t say? Don’t know where Minot is? Join the crowd. Even a high-level Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator, asked to visit Minot, later confessed she hadn’t heard of the floods that submerged a fourth to a third of this northern prairie town’s buildings. And she revealed that she had to search a map to locate the “Magic City,” as the municipality of 40,000 is nicknamed.
Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) is finding it challenging to alert supporters to a disaster that hardly blipped on national media radar. True, there were no deaths, fortunately. And, true, there were no multitudes holed up in temporary shelters, a testament to Minot’s sense of community and desire to care for one another. But a lack of sensational images is no measure of how much havoc the tragedy wreaked on its survivors, their self-help ethic no indication of the amount of assistance needed to rebuild.
Two different siren blasts alerted the 11,000 Minot residents living in a four-mile area along the river to evacuate this year—on May 31 and again on June 23. Everyone knew there’d be flooding. After all, the entire Souris River basin, a binational system of engineered dams and dikes, had experienced at least 18 months of ground saturation, from unusual amounts of snow melt and rain. The U-shaped Souris originates south of Regina, Saskatchewan, snakes down to Minot, cuts across the city center, then twists back north into Manitoba’s southwest corner.
Despite the warnings, Minot residents were unprepared for the June flood’s intensity—how high the water rose, how far it spread and how long affected areas remained under stagnant water. The result is some 12 city blocks of homes—some now no more than shells—that resemble a bombed-out war zone in Minot’s heart, four months after the calamity.
MDS has been in Minot since mid-July, mucking out homes, gutting interiors and sanitizing the remains with pressure washers and bleach. Volunteers have begun to “button up” stripped-down hulls so they weather winter without further damage—insulating walls and roofs and placing plywood over windows. They’re also beginning to rehab some homes so that families can get back into them. Many have been doubling, even tripling, up with relatives or friends or living in FEMA trailers since late June.
Melodie Brunk, 55, a homeowner receiving MDS aid, does her utmost to seek resources to help herself. She contributed so much to cleaning and gutting her house that the MDS group that pressure-washed it decided to cover the costs of the home’s mold-control treatment. The volunteers also pressure-washed furnace ductwork Brunk had salvaged, which is made of metal and, when properly cleaned, may safely be reused.
“I don’t know how I would have done it without them because I don’t have a pressure washer,” Brunk said.
“With luck, pluck and virtue, she’s going to get by,” United Methodist minister Debra Ball-Kilbourne said about Brunk. Ball-Kilbourne helps coordinate flood victims’ case management.
Despite her diligence and the tiny 576-square-foot size of her wood-frame cottage, there’s no way Brunk can afford to rebuild it without volunteer labor. She stays at home to care for her 87-year-old stepfather, whose Social Security supports the three-member family. Her 36-year-old son works part time at a Target store, a participant in a program for individuals with developmental disabilities.
“I feel pretty sentimental to the house because my mom and dad built it. My mom told me how she helped dig out the basement and she showed me the blueprint my dad made. My uncle was a bricklayer, and he did the foundation.” Melanie was born a year or two after the house was finished in 1954 and spent her first ten years of life in it.
On October 12, Paul Unruh and Cletus Yoder met with Brunk in the basement of Minot’s Congregational United Church of Christ. Unruh, of Newton, Kan. was passing off the Minot MDS project director baton to Yoder, of Hudson, Ohio. The UCC congregation has graciously opened its facilities to MDS use until a dedicated MDS project site is created at the Bible Fellowship Church. The latter, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Minot, is undergoing its own post-flood renovation, with help from MDS volunteers.
At the meeting, the two men and Brunk inventoried what was needed to make Brunk’s home inhabitable and the resources available to do so. Brunk shared what she had received: $30,200 from FEMA; $2,000 reimbursement for building materials from the Minot Area Recovery Committee; $1,200 to buy supplies from the Unmet Needs Committee, whose funds come from local nonprofit organizations; a certificate for sheetrock—a promotion of a Minot radio station and a home-improvement chain. She contacted Montana-Dakota Utilities to ask if it still offers rebates on furnaces and water heaters; they do.
“All this adds up,” Unruh said encouragingly. After some quick paper-and-pen computations, Unruh asked Brunk what she could make do without, at least short term. Repaneling the basement, she replied. Yoder described temporary cabinets—curtain-covered boards—that could be used in the kitchen.
Unruh and Yoder hope to have Brunk’s family back in their home by Christmas. The availability of volunteers is the big “if.”
Lack of media coverage is but one factor affecting Minot’s flood-recovery ability. Minot has been booming, economically, for the past couple years, ever since new technology, including “fracking” and horizontal drilling, has enabled extraction of an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil from the Bakken formation under Montana and North Dakota.
A year ago, the Minot Daily News reported, “The number of rigs  actively drilling in North Dakota has surpassed the record set nearly 30 years ago.” The oil patches’ high wages are attracting electricians, who reportedly earn $128 per hour, and other trained tradespeople. This “trade drain” diverts blue-collar workers needed to rebuild flood-ravaged homes from Minot to the oil fields.
“Even before the flood, Minot’s boom had created a housing shortage,” Unruh said. “Now some 4,200 additional homes need major repair.”
What MDS needs most are volunteers, particularly those trained in trades, willing to brave Minot’s winter weather—to help people reconstruct not just homes, but also their fractured lives.
Disaster relief agencies chart a graph of the typical disaster victim’s emotional journey. Minot flood victims have already navigated the lows of evacuation and the upward swing to the “heroic” or “honeymoon stage”: “We’ve lost everything, but we’re alive and pitching in to help one another.”
By the holidays and the early months of 2012, disillusionment may carry many into a valley of despair—a lengthy stage that proceeds working through grief toward final acceptance and adjustment.
“Homeowners, with help from family, friends or volunteers, have gutted and mucked out their homes. They’ve seen their destroyed personal and family possessions piled along the curb awaiting disposal and have struggled to say good-bye to them,” Unruh said. “Now they face winter, along with the uncertainty of whether or how their homes will be restored.”
“Will volunteers choose to come to Minot?” Unruh asks, quickly adding, “If volunteers do show up, the entire community will notice, and the winter will not seem so cold and the future will not be quite as uncertain.”
Unruh, a community mental health worker, says North Dakotans perceive themselves as solid, uncomplaining and self-sufficient—much like the folks of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone. “With nearly every job card I signed off on after a house had been mucked out and sanitized, the homeowner shared tears, then apologized for having done so,” Unruh said. At this landmark on their road to recovery, victims were lamenting the trauma they’d endured while also expressing gratitude for the help received, he explained.
“When you’re struggling to muck out your house alone, and six or eight volunteers come along to help you, it’s emotional,” Unruh says.
“Getting volunteers to serve in Minot may be a special challenge. However, I’m confident that once our service-minded volunteers understand the great need of Minot’s families, they’ll choose to come here to serve,” Unruh said. Then he quoted a favorite saying of former MDS director Tom Smucker: “When our hearts understand how another human being has been harmed, responding is not difficult, it’s mandatory.” Unruh added, “Even in the cold!”
Unruh guarantees that volunteers who choose to go to Minot this winter will experience the residents’ “immense sense of gratitude,” hospitality and friendliness. And if that’s not incentive enough, there are reports of great ice fishing in the area!
MDS volunteers are known for repairing and rebuilding homes damaged by disasters. But it takes more than construction skills to serve with MDS. During the time that you serve as a volunteer, you will learn that MDS also restores lives.
Your contribution will help to connect volunteers with disaster survivors who need assistance on their path to recovery. MDS depends on the support of people who believe that disaster response is an important part of helping those who are in need.
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