First-person Account of Relief-effort Activities in Minot, ND

by UP Chief Greg Sammons

Officer BinghamFive members of the Alfred State College professional staff recently returned from a week-long trip to Minot, ND, where they participated in flood relief efforts. What follows is a first-person account of the trip.

After a 25-hour drive, the five-member Alfred State volunteer team pulled into Minot on Friday morning and went to the coordination center, housed in the Minot Public Library. After changing clothes, Chanel Wright, executive assistant to the college president; Liz Raterman, director, Multicultural Affairs; Deb Mayes, staff assistant, Technology Services; Scott Bingham, officer, University Police, and I (Greg Sammons, University Police Chief) went directly to two assigned addresses to join work teams in progress. The organization supplied the masks and tools.

While the addresses might change day-to-day, the work in each home was essentially the same: remove all drywall and flooring right down to the studs and sub-flooring, de-nail the walls, floors, and ceilings, and remove and carry debris to piles within 10 feet of the street curb. In the basements, the work was much darker and more physically taxing: not only did we remove saturated insulation, drywall and nails, but we also shoveled and carried out the muck that had covered the cellar floors and seemingly everything else below ground level. Looking at largely empty streets, debris piles, and the amount of destruction, the group was in agreement that Minot was the most under-reported American tragedy of the year.

With close to 4,000 homes flooded and severely damaged (This community was one of the areas hardest hit by the flooding of the Souris River in late June, when 10,000 residents of Minot were forced to flee from the worst flood seen in over 130 years. The prolonged flooding has displaced a quarter of the area’s population and devastated more than 4,100 properties) and fewer than 400 homeowners reportedly having flood insurance, the homeowners were left with few choices: (1) with equity or clear ownership, sell the house ‘as is’ to recover as much of the investment as possible, (2) repair and rebuild the house through personal funds or a loan, or (3) with little equity or a big mortgage, walk away and declare bankruptcy.

The Souris (Fr. for Mouse) River comes from Canada and after passing Minot, makes its way back north into Canada. When record-setting waters threatened Canadian communities, dams were opened up and the water was sent to Minot. Warned in advance, people abandoned their homes which received historic amounts of water that surged well past all attempts to build the river banks higher and futile attempts to erect sandbags. With waterlines visible as high as 10 feet above ground level on some homes, the damage was extreme. Many homeowners started to gut their homes themselves, but became overwhelmed. The people in this area are both proud and resourceful – but they clearly need help.

All volunteers working with All Hands (hands.org) worked until 4:30 or 5 p.m. Each night, the organization holds a mandatory team meeting at 7 p.m. followed by dinner prepared by volunteers who take turns with all chores required to keep the facility humming along. At every meeting, the project leader recaps the day’s events, hears reports from the team leaders on their day’s activities (each house had a team leader), sets up assignments for the following day, and allows people to give “shout-outs” in recognition of volunteers spotted working especially hard or doing something special.

Alfred State got an immediate “shout-out” at the first meeting for driving 25 hours and going directly to work at a job site.

On the meeting room wall, under the organization banner, is a compelling project ‘scoreboard’ that illustrates the number of volunteers who have passed through, the cumulative number of volunteer hours contributed, and a rough cost estimate based on prevailing laborer wages that reveals the amount of money the project has saved the residents of Minot. Also on the board are the next day’s assignments and volunteer sign-up sheets for meal preparation, tool cleanup, and safety notices about the project.

The team met very few victims of the flood directly. Most were displaced, often living outside Minot because there are so few available places to live in Minot. One afternoon, while we were gutting a home, two women slowly pulled their car to the curb outside of the house. The first woman looked upset and walked to the backyard. The second cautiously approached and peered inside. As it turns out, these sisters grew up in the house. Although they no longer owned it, the damage was still painful for them to see. They were very appreciative that volunteers had traveled so far to help with the relief efforts. An hour after leaving, and despite not being directly affected by the flood damage, the sisters returned and tried to present us with a $100 gift card. While formal policy doesn’t allow volunteers to directly accept donations, the team leader came out and took the card back to the base, entrusting it to the project leader for the benefit of the shelter.

As of the week of the Alfred State response, the American Red Cross still had 130 Minot residents living in emergency shelters. The Salvation Army Disaster Services meal van travels the largely empty residential streets giving out hot meals but is slated to leave on Sept. 11. All Hands will cease its operation on Oct. 1. Multiple faith-based relief organizations continue their work but will also likely slow their response efforts with winter around the corner. FEMA trailers were still arriving and a home the Alfred State volunteers helped gut was finally getting a FEMA trailer on the day of our departure. Winter is approaching in northern North Dakota and there is a scramble to finish gutting as many homes as possible before freezing temperatures halt the ability to get the job done. Some residents fear an October flood. Others will simply fear “spring” for many years to come. Strategies to prevent future flood damage include talk of straightening the river to bypass residential areas or raising the riverbank walls yet higher.

All Hands manages to accomplish great things with minimal bureaucracy. Because they don’t charge people to volunteer, don’t have a minimum time commitment, do house and feed the volunteers on site, expenses for the volunteers are very low. All Hands estimates its daily cost to maintain a volunteer at $15. With the average volunteer contributing $100-$200 in labor per day, the format becomes a force multiplier and an incredible return that All Hands believes exceeds 800% return on investment. The personal volunteer costs are essentially getting there.

Because many contractors are reportedly quoting homeowners prices in the thousands (allegedly as high as $10,000) to gut, de-nail, and de-muck the home, our team estimates that our members completed the work equivalent to gutting one complete home. Coming home tired, muscles sore, both mentally rewarded and exhausted, with a re-energized faith in the human spirit, the team agreed that the trip was well worth it.