Three months ago you may have been watching news stories and videos about the flooding of the Souris River (locally known as the Mouse River) in Minot, North Dakota, that put 12,000 residents, or one-fourth of the city’s population, out of their homes. The flood waters didn’t recede for about three weeks, leaving thousands of homes and businesses uninhabitable. This afternoon, after spending the morning talking with members of the North Dakota Library Association (who had chosen Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For as their 2011 conference “book club” book) and then speaking at the noon luncheon, I went for a walk through block after block of flood-gutted neighborhoods.
After a half-day of using the pronouns “I” and “me” way too often, it was a sobering walk, all the more disconcerting under a perfect, cloudless, azure sky . (An aside: I have a college buddy who has lived and worked in Manhattan for the past 20 years, and who is now working in Minot as a consultant for a year. Visiting last night over our ritual martinis I asked how often she got back to New York. Her contract allowed her to return every two weeks, she said, but at one point she realized that she hadn’t been back East for a couple of months. “I just couldn’t leave the sky,” she explained.)
I took pictures of gutted houses, of For Sale signs and doors littered with official notices, of debris and mud, of backhoes leveling the dikes that just couldn’t do enough, of FEMA trailers, of children’s toys in gutters, and of evergreen trees that stand, along with the silt-filthed siding on houses, as records of the final flood level: dead branches that were too long under water separated by a straight line from the green foliage above. And when I returned to my hotel room, I deleted most of the pictures, for, one by one, they diminished, rather than proved the destruction. Here, however, are a few:
Note the sandbags, no match for the rising river.
I was reminded of the time I spent in Louisiana in 2005 after Katrina, and of the day that another volunteer and I drove through New Orleans in our Red Cross truck, creeping along deserted streets and overpasses strewn with items that had been transformed from personal belongings to debris by a disaster. The destruction in Minot is exponentially smaller in comparison, but comparisons don’t matter much if it’s your house, your home that has been lost.
This is not, of course, where the story ends. North Dakotans are a contradictory people, expecting to be regularly humbled by the cavalier power of floods, blizzards, drought, and wind, and equally determined to restamp the land with their own particular brand of tidy order. The community is busy reclaiming and rebuilding, and although the flood-ravaged neighborhoods are eerily lacking the sounds of doors slamming, phones ringing, children playing, and music blaring from passing cars, they are not silent. One by one houses are being stripped down to the studs, so the remodeling and rebuilding can begin. Backhoes are clearing debris. Dump trucks and contractors’ pickups are everywhere.
I don’t mean to be glib. This is not a happily-ever-after story. Too many of the people put out of their homes by the flood of 2011 will never return to the home they once knew. And yet, there is a spirit in this place that is hard to define. Rounding the corner of a seemingly empty block, I came upon a woman mowing…well, not her lawn, exactly, but the weeds that had worked their way through the muck where a lawn once had been. Was that her house, I asked? “For now,” she replied, adding that she didn’t know the exact wording for the financial/legal process underway concerning her mortgage, but she supposed that the house was going back to the original owners. In the meantime, she was living in the tiny FEMA trailer next to the gutted house. I wished her luck and was about to walk away, when she added, “I’ll get lights up on the trailer, though. For Christmas. My girls will like that.”
One last picture. In the midst of block after block of empty houses I came upon this house, tidily restored to a determined cheerfulness. Given the house’s recent history, a doorstep knickknack carrying the words, “God Bless This House,” seems less like kitsch than defiant optimism.