A delegation representing the North Dakota Association of Counties visited Ward County Tuesday morning, where it met with three Ward County commissioners and several county department heads.
The meeting was originally scheduled as a tour of the county courthouse, which has had well-publicized space issues for years. However, in light of the disastrous circumstances that have befallen the county, Association of Counties Executive Director Mark Johnson thanked the gathered county officials for taking the time to meet with the group.
"We really want to just hear from you today, and let us know what we can or what we could do for you," Johnson said. "We'll let you know what we can do, and we want to stay in close contact."
What followed was much akin to a therapy session, with county officials painting a bleak picture of what the near and not-so-near future likely holds for Ward County.
"We welcome you here," said county commissioner Carroll Erickson. "I don't know if you've been on a tour yet or not but it's terrible out there. It's just like we're in a war.
"I drove by some houses last night where the only thing saved is a roof and a basement, and everything has been taken out of it - siding, windows, doors - it looks terrible. And it isn't just a small area, it's a huge area. And to get all the agencies together, everybody has tried very, very hard."
Erickson detailed some experiences with difficulties of meetings with numerous federal, state and local agencies, as well as the difficulties in traveling the local area that have been well-documented for some time.
"And few people really understand what's happening," Erickson said. "I talked to a guy on South Hill the other day, and I took him on a tour myself. He said, 'My God. We were under the orders to stay out of there' - which is a good order. But I cannot believe how we're going to recover from this.
"But we will. We just have to take it step by step."
Ward County State's Attorney Roza Larson told Johnson that the county will need the association's help with the 2013 Legislature in order to secure funding for ongoing recovery, particularly involving road repairs, dike improvements and mitigation plans.
"Much like they're doing now for Fargo, they're building up those dikes to save that city," Larson said. "We're going to need that now on the county level. Those roads need to be built up, not only to repair what's happened over the winter and with the flooding, but to be able to handle the increased traffic on our county roads."
Johnson said he anticipates a disaster bill being addressed in November during the legislative reapportionment session.
"I think that's going to be the tip of the iceberg, an attempt to just get some monies moving in the right direction," he said, adding that he expects the 2013 Legislature to look at a "serious program about flood relief."
Larson also said that although discussions are ongoing to bring in additional legal help to assist in the condemnation process, other legal issues will undoubtedly arise that will require additional legal assistance.
Commissioner Jack Nybakken asked Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski for an update on the re-entry process and debris removal.
Kukowski said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors would make three or more passes from the Burlington area all the way to city limits to collect debris as people move it to the right-of-way.
As for re-entry, Kukowski said the county had it "better than the city," because most of the areas only had one way in and out of residential areas.
In a sobering turn, Kukowski then outlined the county's law enforcement situation.
"We see a huge influx now, and we feel the worst is yet to come," he said.
He said with workers arriving from far-flung countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua, a sinister criminal element is already taking advantage of the migrant employee base that follows disasters around the country - including members of international drug cartels and gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13.
"They prey on these people that travel around, just like a carnival," Kukowski said.
He said that a particularly noisy incident in northwest Minot Monday night had irritated the neighborhood, and by Tuesday morning city alderman were already "raising cane because the neighborhood wants them out."
"They wake them up with a bullhorn, they call them to meals with a bullhorn," Kukowski said, adding that around 150 employees were chanting Monday night that they wanted their per diem.
"They're going to move this out into the county, and then we're going to have to deal with it," Kukowski said. "It's good to have the Border Patrol, because most of them are Spanish-speaking."
Domestic incidents are also on the rise as patience wanes, he said.
"We overflowed the jail over the weekend," Kukowski said. Nearly 50 people were booked in over the weekend, he said, with the jail's capacity being 104 and a daily average between 70-80 prisoners.
Thefts haven't been a big problem because the re-entry process has been easier for law enforcement to monitor due to limited access to neighborhoods.
Kukowski said a person reported the theft of $2,000 cash, a set of golf clubs and some vehicles rims from 27th Street Northeast Tuesday morning, but he conjectured that "somebody who knows they had that stuff" was likely responsible.
If hundreds of workers move out into the county, Kukowski said he won't have the manpower to provide the extra patrol it will require.
"We're going to have to talk to their management," he said. "There are no private security companies left, because the oilfield has taken them all up to protect their property in the rural areas."
Jane Amundson, the president of the Association of Counties, asked who brought the problematic workforce here, and why.
"They're here to do the work," Kukowski said, adding that the origin of some of the workers was discovered by the background checks performed at the "One-Stop" shop for contractors at Job Service.
"There's a real criminal element here," he said. "They've got convicted murderers. There's two of them where Florida has warrants for them, but they don't want them back. They're glad that they're here, and they hope they stay here."
Kukowski hoped the cold winters might prod many undesirables to move on, but doubted that it would not solve the problem totally.
"It's going to affect us for years to come," he said.
In addition, the Border Patrol agents who are supplementing area law enforcement are now going to be forced to live in tents due to the escalating hotel crisis. They had been staying in an area hotel that is still under construction, but now as it nears completion, FEMA is making the Border Patrol agents move out, according to Kukowski.
"That's been a problem with housing all along," said county auditor-treasurer Devra Smestad. "Everybody who's coming in (for assistance) is told they can't stay within a 50-mile radius.
"So unless they have a tent or a camper - and someplace to put it - they're having to stay in the Riverdale-Pick City area or wherever. All the FEMA, Border Patrol and everybody are being pushed to that 50-mile radius."
"That's the first time I've heard (these things)," Johnson said. "That's not being being shared with the whole state of North Dakota, to understand what you're dealing with. Transients who are coming in - with some sort of gainful employment - but they're still transients. And they're potentially dangerous."
"Very much so," Kukowski replied.
Kukowski said he had spoken Monday with an agent at the Minneapolis FBI office, who told Kukowski that the FBI "has no idea" what's going on in Minot.
"There's nothing in the media," Kukowski said. "I don't know whose job it is to get that message out there, but I think we do need to get it out that we need help and that there are a lot of people suffering here."
County building inspector Mitch Flanagan said several homes he inspected have compromised foundations from flooding.
"The people who own them don't have the money to fix it," he said. "We don't want to condemn these buildings, we want to see if we can fix them and get them back on their feet. But they don't have money to do it, or they have an existing loan, or it's paid off and they don't want to buy the building again."
Flanagan asked Johnson if the Association has any influence with banking.
Commissioner John Fjeldahl said that the banking industry is also facing a dilemma, though.
"They have security in these homes at a certain value point pre-flood," Fjeldahl said. "Now it's not worth that, so it creates a situation with the Board of Examiners - that bank's portfolio isn't what it used to be.
"So they would like their customers to continue paying their mortgage payments, but the owners of the home are saying, 'Why would I do that until I know what's going to happen?'
"This wait-and-see process is difficult for the owners, and the banking institution doesn't have any answers either, because they really don't want that property back."
County tax equalization director Mike Vendsel said he is about halfway through the process of evaluating damage to homes.
"The damage is just unbelievable," Vendsel said. He gave a "rough guess" that the true and full, pre-flood values of city and county structures affected by flooding exceeds $400 million.
Vendsel said many homes are now gutted to the studs.
"People don't know if they should build it," he said. "Are they going to be bought out? And in the meantime, there's nowhere for them to live.
"The sheriff talks about the domestic issues. You get two families in one house, with the stresses of the family that's flooded feeling like they're in the way I can see where they're getting tons of calls from people who are stressed to the point where they just kind of lose it."
Smestad said some shelter populations have almost doubled now.
"And that's because of the stress levels of people who were staying (with friends), but now they're butting heads and they just had to go get their own space," Smestad said. "So now they're staying at the shelter instead of with friends and family."
Vendsel said he knew a person who would have to go "upside down" in their mortgage loan to repair their home, and they attempted to contact their mortgage holder, who had bought the mortgage on the secondary market.
"It's a large, large company," Vendsel said. He said his friends asked the mortgage owner for assistance.
"The answer they basically got from that mortgage company was, 'Well you wouldn't be the first person to walk away from a house in this country, given the current mortgage crisis in this country,'" Vendsel said. "They don't even care."
Now, the houses that are abandoned will sit in rotting conditions for three years, at which time the county will have to take over the properties for non-payment of taxes.
"Guess who gets to clean it up?" Vendsel said.
That will undoubtedly lead to a hazardous situation to public health long before those three years are up.
Erickson added that three years from now, it might be nearly impossible to even determine who owns many of these abandoned properties.
Fjeldahl said that in addition, about 60 percent of the county's farmland never got planted due to water issues.
Smestad said organizations that want to assist are having difficulty finding information on how to get involved in the area.
"There's organizations that will send 200 or 300 people who will come and help people do the work, but there's nowhere to put them," Vendsel added. "We didn't have any houses or hotel rooms available before this happened."
"It's going to be difficult to conduct business in this town for a long time to come," Fjeldahl said.
County Recorder Sheila Dalen said a man came into her office Monday and told her he had bought his house 50 years ago for $20,000.
"He sold it for $20,000, as is," she said. "He said, 'I lived there 50 years. What do I do?' So he sold it and got what he paid for it."
Vendsel said companies are coming in to buy houses, which they will then fix up and sell again.
Smestad said area schools including colleges are expecting significant decreases in enrollment.
County Veteran's Service Officer Dale Braun said his office is seeing increased traffic as well.
"Veterans coming in, they've lost everything and are looking for a place to live," Braun said. "We can't help them. We refer them to the FEMA apparatus, and they have to get what they can there."
Braun said that Veterans Administration loan recipients are having similar success to other homeowners, with some getting a little assistance from local lenders like 90-day suspension of payments.
"But with the resold loans to big companies, they're just on their own," he said.