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Volunteers find 'impassioned spirit'

North Dakota city rebuilding from devastating summer floods

BY CASEY MCCORRY | MINOT, N.D. | October 20, 2011

Relief volunteers first arriving in the flooded Minot, North Dakota this summer encountered a dismal scene. They described a city well under three to five feet of water, more than 800 homes damaged beyond repair, 1200 evacuees sprawled throughout the city, roads blocked off by flooding, clusters of tents for displaced residents, mobile food pantries in perpetual motion, and mail delayed for weeks.

With winter soon approaching the damage is overwhelming, and Minot is getting little to no media attention. Yet volunteers have found the most noteworthy aspect of the relief work was not the damage, but the impassioned spirit of camaraderie that developed among interfaith relief groups, an environment where tools were exchanged back and forth, and meals were passed between groups regularly. It is this prevailing bond that volunteers describe as the “glue” to hold Minot through this adversity.

Last winter, regions surrounding the Souris River experienced inordinate snowfall followed by above average rainfall the next spring resulting in record-breaking floods Minot hasn't seen since 1895. With more than 4,000 homes damaged, hundreds to be rebuilt, and 12,000 Minot residents evacuated or displaced, the damage along the Souris River merited a Presidential Disaster declaration in May, however, the federal disaster aid was not enough for the nearly $2 billion worth of damage.

Minot residents are depending on help supplied by FEMA, the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, and dozens of interfaith disaster response organizations for rebuilding the city. With cold weather on the horizon and the insurmountable work to be done preparing homes for another winter, these disaster relief workers feel a sense of urgency when approaching the vast workload in Minot.

Al Kroeker, regional director of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) in North Dakota first arrived to Minot in July when the water was still too high to even begin working on repairing homes. All that could be done in those moments was to tend to the displaced evacuuees. Kroeker called those first days of waiting “a gift”, a time to be a witness to Minot's community, one he called “unique and inspiring”.

“It really was a testimony to their community. Some evacuees stayed in designated shelters provided by FEMA but it seems most people found friends or relatives to stay with. So many people above level opened their homes to complete strangers affected by the flooding.”

Since July MDS has rapidly been “cutting and mucking” homes, a process which entails pulling carpeting, walls, or anything else out of the house that may have been ruined by the floods. They have been rebuilding homes that were entirely damaged to add to FEMA's 600 temporary manufactured homes and working to “winter-proof” every home so all Minot residents will have a home before the winter.

Bonnie Turner, program director of Lutheran Disaster Response, described LDR's involvement in winter-proofing homes in Minot. “We are currently developing a long-term recovery plan for residents of Minot. As of right now LDR's priority is closing the most crucial cases in the case management process and securing homes for more snowfall,” a process she says will include anything from assessing which homes have power to boarding up windows and putting anti-freeze in the water lines.”

With ample work to be done Kroeker, Turner, and other relief workers are concerned about insufficient funds and a lack of media coverage. Kroeker explains, “Every disaster is forgotten when it leaves. When it's out of site, or out of the news, it's out of mind.” Jack Cobb, regional director of American Baptist Men USA Disaster Relief, fears his group will be unable to even do the bare minimum, giving Minot residents homes for winter.

“News can only be news if it can attract the attention of the national news networks. The reality is what is it is and we're not going to change it.” explains Cobb who described ABMen-USA's financial situation as “Nearly broke.”

“We sure need some more funding. With more money we could do a lot more ministry.” Hunter describes LDR's similar need,

“What LDR needs most is first, prayer, second, donations.”

In light of the difficulties disaster relief groups face in Minot and a collective lack of funding, a collaborative effort has formed between the dozens of volunteer groups in Minot. Volunteers found that the added strains of great need and inadequate resources aroused a fraternal charity between the interfaith relief groups unlike what they had seen in their work before.

“I call it North Dakota nice,” Hunter said. “ I think what has made North Dakota successful in the past and what will make it successful in the future is that we all work together. I like when we can work together, play in the same sandbox and work for the common benefit of our survivors.”

Kroeker described how MDS collaborated with a Jewish disaster response organization, NECHAMA.

“We ended up working very closely together with them. NECHAMA offered us their tools many times and MDS in turn offered our volunteers to help them with the homes they were working on.” Kroeker said the United Church of Christ offered to house the Mennonite volunteers and opened up their kitchen to them. In return the MDS would cook meals for church groups in the area.

Cobb describes what a typical scene walking down a Minot street would be, “I would walk just one block and see upwards of ten different ministries that were working hands-on doing the coordinating, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic relief groups all working together on the same rooftops with the same tools. All working for one project”

Kroeker claims in all his years of volunteering he has never seen anything quite like the sense of unity in Minot, “One thing that happens in a disaster is that the boundaries present in life outside of the disaster are removed. This disaster is much too big for one organization to come in and handle the project. We need many organizations to come and cooperate, working together.”

In addition to those response organizations involved in the relief efforts others currently working on the rebuilding in Minot include: Adventist Community Services, American Red Cross, Catholic Charities, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Church World Service, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Episcopal Relief and Development, Scientology Disaster Response, Nazarene Disaster Response, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Southern Baptist Convention, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod World Relief and Human Care, The Salvation Army, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Disaster Response, Week of Compassion, and World Vision.

Despite the approaching winter and funding shortages it seems these interfaith relief groups are far from dismayed. Cobb recalls an experience he found a source of motivation, “I remember working at a home full of water and a single woman in her 40's was sitting on a flower box smoking a cigarette saying, 'I don't know what I'm going to do, I don't know how I can recover from this.' Two days later she's telling us with tears of joy, 'I can make it now.' That's why we work, for the people we serve and the relationships we have with whom we work. It's what gets us under houses in the mud, or ripping out rotting floors.” Cobb says.

“Our most important work is bringing people hope.”

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