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Published April 03, 2011, 05:45 PM

Rural areas watch the bottom line in flood fight

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — When officials in the Fargo area got together last week to talk about preparations for an expected third straight major flood, 29 people crowded around a table, including representatives from police, the governor's office, the National Guard, hospitals, schools, utilities and even mental health professionals.

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — When officials in the Fargo area got together last week to talk about preparations for an expected third straight major flood, 29 people crowded around a table, including representatives from police, the governor's office, the National Guard, hospitals, schools, utilities and even mental health professionals.

The last flood meeting in Hendrum, Minn., drew the mayor, five city council members, the city maintenance supervisor and the clerk/treasurer.

"For a small town to prepare for a flood it's a lot different than it is for a big metro area," Mayor Curt Johannsen said of Hendrum, a town of about 350 people about 30 miles north of Fargo and Moorhead, Minn. "We don't have the resources that Fargo-Moorhead does, so as a small town we can't afford to absorb a lot of those costs."

Fighting a flood and paying for it — both short- and long-term — is a balancing act for Hendrum and other small towns affected by the Red River system. Johannsen said he doesn't want to commit too early in case the flood isn't as bad as predicted and the damage winds up below the threshold for federal disaster reimbursement.

"We're being very cautious on how much money we spend as far as preparing for the flood," Johannsen said. "There have been floods that have been predicted in the past that never happened."

Ann Manley, mayor of Perley, Minn., said the same is true for her town of about 120 people. She said residents are prepared to act quickly if needed, but for now "we're sitting here doing the wait job" until they get a better idea about possible flood levels. Most people believe the National Weather Service predictions based on soil conditions, precipitation and melt are "a little on the high side," she said.

"We're all optimistically waiting for a lower number," Manley said. "We haven't done anything drastic yet."

Most towns feel they're better equipped to handle flooding this year than in 2009, when the Red River set several crest records. In Hendrum, some houses have been bought out by the federal government and several residents outside of town have raised ring dikes. In Oxbow, N.D., a town of about 300 people 15 miles south of Fargo, the community embarked on a $500,000 levee project after floods in the last two years.

"I'm pretty confident with what we've done," said Jim Nyhof, Oxbow mayor.

Future improvements are also in the works, said Ron Harnack, project coordinator for the Red River Watershed Management Board, which represents watershed districts in northwest Minnesota. Communities scheduled to begin flood protection projects are Hendrum, Halstad, Shelly, Climax and Neilsville.

"Some of the smaller ones still have quite a ways to go for permanent protection," Harnack said. "We hope that over the next four years with adequate funding we should be able to provide a good permanent level of protection to most if not all of the smaller communities in the Red River basin."

Johannsen said the heavy equipment that will be used to build a permanent levee around Hendrum is already in place. He said that's comforting because it would be available if the town needs to add clay to its current dike.

Getting ready for a flood is like preparing for a wedding, Johannsen said.

"You plan for a year but there's only so much stuff you can do ahead of time until that last week," he said. "That's when everything breaks loose."

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