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FEMA's No. 2: 'This is gonna be a long process'

MINOT -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency's No. 2 official, Richard Serino, toured flooded areas in the Souris River valley Wednesday, pledging afterwards his agency's commitment to the region's recovery.

"This is gonna be a long process," he said. "This is not gonna be a few days or a few weeks. This is gonna be months. But we're going to be here for the long haul."

FEMA has already disbursed $1.4 million in Ward County, where flood damage is greatest so far, and in Burleigh County to the south where the flooded Missouri River did its damage. The checks arrived recently to help flood evacuees pay for temporary housing and other necessities.

Serino had high praise for the flood fight and the nascent recovery efforts here. "I toured the area in the helicopter, and seeing the devastation without loss of life is amazing," he said. "It's a testament to the great work that's been done by everybody in the community."

The river remains at historic highs in Minot, a city of 41,000 that's the state's fourth largest. As of 6 p.m. Wednesday, the river gauge was at 1,560 feet, two feet higher than the record set during the 1881 flood.

Nevertheless, officials in the region have begun planning the recovery and residents are itching to get started.

"We're getting an awful lot of phone calls wanting to know if they can step through that water and get to their homes; the answer is 'no,'" said Jerome Gruenberg, chairman of the Ward County Commission and mayor of Burlington, a town of 1,100 upstream of Minot. He said it's a safety issue, and utility workers need to get in first.

Returning home

But when evacuation zones will be safe is anyone's guess in Minot and Burlington where large numbers of homes are underwater.

"There's so much water and it's coming so slow, and we know it's going to recede slowly," said Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman. "We're looking at thunderstorms again tomorrow and the next night. Anything can happen. We're just praying that things will moderate."

Only in Velva, a downstream town of 1,100 that's mostly escaped flood damage, have officials been able to let evacuees return, which they would've done this morning. "The governor and city commission believe because of the drastic drop in the river and that 100 percent of the river is now within the original levee system, it is safe for residents to move back to their homes," the city announced late Wednesday.

Sawyer, another downstream town of 360, evacuees were allowed back in Thursday, according to Ward County spokeswoman Lori Brierley.

When Minot evacuees get to return, it'll be to flooded homes for many. According to FEMA's assessment, about 4,000 homes here are affected in some way by flooding, and, of those, 800 have been severely damaged. The city is now identifying the best sites for FEMA trailers.

Unlike the policy in place during the 1997 flood that struck Grand Forks, Serino said, the agency will now try to procure as many of the trailers locally as possible to give the damaged economy a boost.

Step by step

In a small sign of progress, the city has reopened two of four lanes of the Broadway bridge for morning and evening commute. It's the only remaining bridge connecting the north and south sides of the city, which is bisected by the river.

The mayor closed it about a week ago to all traffic but emergency vehicles and flood fighter, fearing that the traffic would impede repair crews reinforcing the temporary levees as they're worn away by fast-moving water.

Still, there's been a few setbacks in the flood fight.

Water main breaks disrupted service to many homes in Minot and at the City Auditorium, which is serving as an evacuation shelter; evacuees, whose numbers have dwindled to less than 200, are all housed at the remaining shelter at Minot State University.

On Sunday, a problem at the water treatment plant raised fears of contamination, prompting the state to issue a boil order, advising residents in Minot and other towns that uses city water to boil before drinking. The order remains in effect, but Public Works Director Alan Walter said the city is almost ready with test samples throughout the system; testing will determine if any contamination occurred

Tran is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.