The North Dakota Department of Emergency Services held an informational meeting with local officials Thursday morning to begin laying the groundwork for rebuilding the entire community once the floodwaters have receded.
Ray Morrell, NDDES' hazard mitigation officer who is also the state's individual assistance officer, gathered officials from the cities of Burlington and Minot and Ward County commissioners to start outlining some of the processes and qualifications for federal aid in home acquisition or relocation.
Coincidentally, Morrell said the meeting had been scheduled before the flood escalated to its current proportions.
"With this event that has happened now, I know and the officials in this room also understand that some of these questions are going to be coming forward," Morrell said.
Morrell told the group that it was time to begin planning what the Souris Valley will look like once the river recedes into its banks, and once it has been determined which areas would be rebuilt, it will be the local governments who will purchase properties from citizens to help those plans take shape.
"It is you who will be purchasing the property, maintaining the property and owning the property," Morrell said. "The citizens are going to have questions, and local officials will have to identify answers for you - and that may take them a fair amount of time."
The goal is having a plan to help reduce the effect of future events, he said.
"Home acquisitions or home relocations is a significant part of that program," Morrell said. "Mitigation is the attempt to reduce or eliminate the effects of future disasters, and to acquire property or relocate property out of the flood plain (with a plan that is) 100 percent effective."
The most important decision local officials face in this process is identifying which areas will be addressed with the mitigation program.
"You need to look at what you want your cities to look like in the future," he said. "In the case of Minot, how you can make the Magic City more magical in the future, by identifying green space, by identifying possible recreational use and using this program to leverage that activity."
Morrell said there are five different types of mitigation grants that can be pursued in the process, including hazard mitigation; pre-disaster mitigation; flood mitigation assistance; repetitive flood claims assistance; and severe repetitive loss.
Thursday's focus was the hazard mitigation grant program, which will be available because the presidential disaster has been declared.
The normal cost share for the grant process is 75 percent federal, 10 percent state and 15 percent local. However, Morrell said that if the grant can be attributed to the 2011 flood, the state has authorized him to utilize the state disaster relief fund to up the state's share to 17.5 percent, cutting the local share in half.
All local government agencies can apply for mitigation funds, Morrell said.
In order to utilize mitigation funds for acquisition or relocation of private property, the seller must be a willing participant in the sale, he said.
"You can not use eminent domain," Morrell emphasized, adding that he loathes the term "buyout," because that term has "too many loose interpretations."
"People think it's an automatic check in hand," he said. "It's not. This is a process, this is months - it is not overnight."
Additionally, those properties purchased by the government must be maintained as open space forever.
"You can never build on it again," Morrell said. "The intent is to restore the flood plain. Let the water go where the water needs to go."
However, if the property is purchased as part of a mitigation plan that involves channelization, or increasing the size of the river channel to limit the chances of future flooding, eminent domain can be exercised within the boundaries of local ordinances.
For open space land acquisition, the property purchased might not necessarily have been destroyed or damaged in the flooding, and must not be a part of an intended, planned or designated project area. Parcels cannot be subdivided prior to acquisition, and once purchased the parcel must be maintained for use compatible with open space, recreational or wetlands management practices.
"If it's a two-acre parcel of land that gets submitted in the application, then that two-parcel piece of land is addressed," Morrell said. He said a wonderful example of how that space can be used is Lincoln Park in Grand Forks, which had 350 homes on the land before the flood of 1997.
"No new structures can be built on that property forever," Morrell said. "This includes dikes. If you are considering flood control, consider the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers. Their funding allows for placement of permanent flood protection."
If the space is used for recreational use, however, no public assistance dollars can be used for damages in future disasters.
Once the government decides to acquire that property, it must inform the seller - who again must be a willing participant - in writing, of what it feels is a fair market value for the property based on two appraisals. The seller will be given a period of time to consider that offer, and can opt out at any point in time.
If the deal is closed, the existing buildings on that property must be demolished or removed within 90 days of closing. If a house is still livable and can feasibly be relocated, however, the local jurisdiction has the authority to offer it for resale to the public. That money will come back into the project grant at the same rate as the cost share, 92.5 percent.
"You can not relocate that property back into the 100-year flood plain," Morrell said.
In addition, if a home is relocated, it will go back onto a similar foundation as it came off of.
"If it comes off a slab on grade, it goes back on a slab on grade," he said. "If it came off a full basement, it goes back on a full basement.
"You're not going to use federal tax dollars to upgrade your home. You can do it, but it's going to be out of pocket."
This particular grant program deals only with primary residential structures. Businesses are covered by different mechanisms.
Also, the appraisals used to make the fair-market offer to the seller will apply to the pre-event condition of the property before the damage from the current flood occurred.
Citizens should not have an "on the list, I'm getting a check" mentality, Morrell said.
He said that the process will take at least 18 months - "if the stars all line up."
When asked, Morrell said that there are Web sites that contain information about these programs, but that they are very technical and perhaps not of much use to the average person. However, Minot City Finance Director Cindy Hemphill said that the website at (www.rallyminot.com) was making efforts to encapsulate as much useful information as possible.
Morrell said benefit-cost analysis will be crucial to projects during the grant review process.
"Is it feasible to relocate a 6,000 square foot brick home? Pretty challenging," he said.
Morrell said he will be conducting training on utilization of the benefit-cost software module for government officials.
Notices of interest in the mitigation grant funding must be filed with his office by July 29, Morrell said. Those notices are not binding, however, and are just to help him begin the process of sorting out the eligible projects.
Due to federal funding compliance guidelines, if a project begins before the funding is granted, it loses eligibility, he warned.
"If you start demolishing a structure or you start acquiring structures that are part of this application before it is funded, or you start doing a sewer system upgrade in a grant application before it's funded, you just lost the funding," Morrell said.
People who don't know if their homes will be eligible for the acquisition program are encouraged to begin repairs on their homes. However, if homeowners cannot document that any assistance or insurance payments for structural repairs were used for that purpose, that amount will be deducted from the total received for the acquisition.
In the meantime, if people can't afford to return to their homes or begin the rebuilding or recovery process, they might just walk away. If that happens, the local government entity will be responsible for that property. Those people might end up paying the government back, though, because they didn't spend some assistance money they might have obtained in the way they were supposed to.
All in all, this should be seen as an opportunity to make the community better, he said.
"You as a community can plan for the future - where you feel your community can become 50 or 100 years from now," Morrell said. "As catastrophic as this is, it allows you that opportunity."