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Sen. Dorgan: 'I see a lot of progress'

NORTHWOOD -- Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., sees signs of progress all around North-wood since an EF-4 tornado devastated the community last Aug. 26.

"You, because you live here, may not see as much progress as I see when I come from the outside," the senator said. "I come in, and I see a lot of progress. There's a lot being done here in this town, and a lot has been done."

The senator toured the community of about 1,000 on Saturday, including Agvise Laboratories and Guenthner Super Valu. Both businesses were destroyed in the tornado and both have been rebuilt.

Then, he stopped to chat with a group of about 40 residents, to learn about what challenges Northwood still faces.

He learned that while progress has been steady, much remains to be done.

Several empty Main Street buildings, cordoned off by fencing, provided a grim reminder of the tornado's fury. The city will open bids Monday for an estimated $900,000 demolition project for the condemned Main Street business district.

While dozens of homes have been refurbished, with new siding and roofs, others remain in shambles.

"We're still having problems with insurance companies," Mayor Rick Johnson said. "It shouldn't take this long."

To date, the city has calculated:

n Homeowners' personal property and loss of use at $28.2 million.

n Renters' claims at $34,000.

n Public property, through State Fire and Tornado Fund, which provides property insurance for buildings owned by state political subdivisions, $9.2 million.

But the city still has no total for commercial losses, because insurance claims have not been settled, according to City Administrator Marcy Douglas.

"The insurance delays really seem to be affecting a lot of people," Johnson said. "They just can't seem to get things settled, so they can do something, so they can move on."

Dorgan noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced this past week that it will provide $4.9 million to rebuild Northwood School, which was destroyed in the tornado. But about $1 million will be spent to demolish the old school.

Earlier, the State Fire and Tornado Fund paid $7.6 million.

That total falls about $2.5 million short of the estimated $14 million cost of a new school.

"We're going to end up with less than we had before," said Beth Johnson, a city council member and editor of the Northwood Gleaner, the community's weekly newspaper.

Dorgan pledged to search for other funding sources, to reduce the potential debt to North-wood School District and its taxpayers.

A final bid opening on the school project is set for June 17, and school officials expect construction to begin by July. The new school is scheduled to open at the beginning of the 2009-10 school year.

Northwood's students have been attending school in nearby Hatton, Northwood seniors will have their graduation next Sunday in the Northwood Community Center.

Dorgan praised Northwood's community leaders for their efforts over the past nine months.

"When there's a challenge that confronts a community like this one has, it takes a lot of skill and a lot of determination to deal with it," Dorgan said.

While Northwood's recovery was the topic of the day, those attending the community conversation also quizzed the senator on a variety of other topics, including the Farm Bill, which Congress just sent to President Bush, and energy issues such as fuel prices.

After his stop in Northwood, Dorgan visited Grand Forks Air Force Base, where he talked about a Pentagon proposal to privatize housing on the nation's military installations.

The Air Force has said recently it plans, by mid-2009, to turn over ownership of all military housing to private contractors, who would collect rent from military personnel. Under the plan, the contractors would sign 50-year contracts to maintain the facilities.

Dorgan opposes the proposal, saying the housing stock at the Grand Forks and Minot bases are in good condition.

"I think this plan is a bad idea, and I'm going to try to put a stop to it," Dorgan said. "This policy isn't limited to the Air Force; it's being implemented throughout the Department of Defense. But I don't see any sense in turning over some of the best housing stock in the world to private contractors. That's not in the interest of our taxpayers or the personnel who are living there."

The Grand Forks Herald and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.