Anyone who knows anything at all about the decades-long struggle to secure flood protection for the Crookston community knows that once a flood control project is finished, there's still one major hurdle to clear: Getting the project certified.
Only when a project is certified can property owners who were once within the boundaries of the 100-year flood plain opt out of the national flood insurance program, which would permit them, if they wish, to invest significant amounts of money in improvements on their homes, rental properties or businesses. It takes a long time for a community's new flood plain map to be certified, so in the interim a "letter of map revision" (LOMR) authored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suffices as an official certification that an area once within the 100-year flood plain is now out of the flood plain.
The problem is, Community Development Director Mike MacDonald told the city Ways & Means Committee this week, it'll likely be up to two years before a LOMR officially removing Sampson's, Chase-Loring and Jerome's additions from the 100-year flood plain is complete.
While he knows that's frustrating for property owners who would not only like to stop paying flood insurance premiums but would also like to invest in their properties and see a rebirth of sorts in their neighborhoods, MacDonald said it shouldn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm over the fact that Crookston is tantalizingly close to being protected from 100-year flood events on the Red Lake River.
"We're golden," he said. "I'm happy to report, as I've said before, it's truly amazing where we're at, what we've accomplished, and the support we've gotten from the folks in the state houses and the governor."
Crookston's first project, completed in 2004, removed 379 homes and businesses in the Woods Addition, a portion of downtown and in the Thorndale Avenue area from the 100-year flood plain. It was a federal project undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and cost around $13.2 million.
Around 2005, with three more neighborhoods in harm's way and the federal funding process agonizingly slow, Kent Lokkesmoe of the Minnesota DNR took a boat ride on the Red Lake River, got a look at 40-year old dikes that were supposed to be "emergency" and "temporary" when they were erected, and declared Crookston the most at-risk for flooding city in the entire state.
From that point, compared to the federal process, it's been practically a whirlwind of activity, with state bonding bills including healthy allocations to the DNR's Flood Hazard Mitigation Grant program, and the DNR, in turn, sending money Crookston's way for flood control projects that have been completed in relatively rapid fashion. All that remains today, as far as projects involving certified levees, is some cosmetic work in Jerome's Addition.
Page 2 of 3 - In addition to the very first project, 463 homes and businesses have been protected from high water, at a cost of around $33 million.
The state investment has made it possible for Crookston's special service district "flood fund," which was established after the epic flood fight of 1997, to accrue a healthy bottom line of around $2 million. By the time the fund sunsets in 2017, the city should be able to set up an endowment that will allow for continued investment in operations and maintenance of the city's levee system.
"I can't say enough about the leadership that Lokkesmoe provided on this, and the outstanding job he did of educating the legislature on the importance of reducing the damage and the costs from floods," MacDonald said, also mentioning Keith Langseth, the longtime state senator from Glyndon who recently retired.
Recent wet weather means that seeding and sodding of the new levee in Jerome's Addition won't be finished until next spring, MacDonald said. Other than that, all that's left for the Jerome's project is for Reiner Contracting to remove some equipment, he said.
Plans are still in place to erect a levee along Ash Street from the Robert Street Bridge and along the street that won't be eligible to be a certified levee but will protect the area at the entrance to the Woods Addition from high river water. MacDonald said he hopes the work is finished by the end of the 2013 construction season.
The city has been acquiring properties in the area on an involuntary basis. Every property owner of the mostly-rental properties along the street has indicated a willingness to sell, but MacDonald said the hold-up is that when properties are acquired involuntarily affected tenants and residents are required to get assistance with relocation. There are three properties to close the deals on, MacDonald said, with an eye on demolishing them in the spring.
The story is similar and yet different in the Riverside area. The city is acquiring properties there, too, but that is on a "willing seller" basis, which means the city can't force anyone's hand. "We own a number of houses there," MacDonald said, adding that demolitions in that area are also a springtime goal. Once the homes are gone, the basements will be filled in and the area will be a green space, he explained, adding that there are several homes in the area that the city would like to buy and remove, but property owners have yet to pull the trigger on a transaction.
Much of the work now involves completing the city's operations and maintenance manuals for the recently completed projects, he said. The plan is to get the manuals submitted by January. Doing so is required as part of the process of getting the LOMR.
Page 3 of 3 - "I hope this all moves quicker than I think, but two years has been kind of the standard timeframe," MacDonald said, adding that he's fielded numerous calls from Crookston residents who wonder why they still need to buy flood insurance. "We've really come a long way; we're going to get there."