Flooding frustration

Karen Klava stirred up some muck of frustration from this past spring's flooding as she told the Grand Forks County Commission last week of her family's futile attempts to get a federal flood buyout of their home north of Grand Forks.

Karen Klava
Karen Klava looks at the Red River back in its banks after spring flooding that was nearly as high on the Klava farm as the 1997 flood north of Grand Forks. Klava and her husband, Bill, are hoping for a buyout after years of flooding on their farm. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

Karen Klava stirred up some muck of frustration from this past spring's flooding as she told the Grand Forks County Commission last week of her family's futile attempts to get a federal flood buyout of their home north of Grand Forks.

She and her husband, Bill, haven't lived in their home since March 25, when the swelling Red River filled their basement with water, knocked out their electricity, flooded all but three buildings on the farm and eventually collapsed their sewer drain field.

It's the fifth time they've been flooded out of their home, located along the Red River, about a half-mile from the area known as the Fox Farm Addition, since 1997. Bill Klava has lived on the farm since 1953.

"We had just about the same amount of water this year as in 1997," Karen Klava said Monday, adding that the spring flooding has been more severe since Grand Forks and East Grand Forks built a $400 million floodwall protection system.

They brought in two truckloads of sandbags to try to protect their property this year.


"We needed about four more, but the water came too fast," she said.

The Klavas don't want to abandon their riverside property, which is largely hidden in a yard full of century-old trees down a country lane. Rather, they want to rebuild on higher ground closer to the North Columbia Road entrance to their farm.

"We would hate to lose it," she said of the home. "We'd hate to move into town because of the dogs and the horses. The sad part of moving down the road is that you'd lose your privacy."

FEMA buyouts

The Klavas are among a half-dozen rural Grand Forks families who have expressed interest in a Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazard Mitigation Grant Program flood buyout this spring.

In the past, townships throughout the state routinely have been included in city or county HMGPs, which allowed for buyouts in rural areas, said Lonnie Hoffer, North Dakota Department of Emergency Services disaster recovery chief.

But the playing field has become muddier the past couple of years, since three Grand Forks townships along the Red River adopted their own zoning ordinances.

Hazard mitigation, or flood-plain management, is one of the responsibilities townships assumed when they adopted their own zoning ordinances, Grand Forks County Planner Lane Magnuson said.


Seeking info

Grand Forks County is seeking clarification from FEMA and the state DES.

The county's interpretation is that counties are not allowed to sponsor HMGP applications for properties in townships with their own zoning laws.

Magnuson said one possible solution is that townships with their own zoning laws adopt the county's flood plain hazard mitigation plan as their own. The county, in turn, would have to make reference to that fact in its plan.

All six of the rural residents who have expressed interest in a buyout this year happen to live in one of three townships north of Grand Forks along the Red River that adopted their own zoning ordinances within the past year.

They're among 13 of 41 townships in Grand Forks County with their own zoning ordinances. Others are Americus, Fairfield, Ferry, Hegton, Lakeville, Loretta, Levant, Logan Center, Merinos, Oakville, Rye and Turtle River.

Past experience

The county has been involved in flood buyouts in the past, in Falconer, Ferry and Turtle River townships, all three bordering the Red River, and all of them before the townships adopted their own zoning ordinances, according to Magnuson.


"We're neutral," he said. "For the commissioners, it's not a matter of what they want to do. The main issue is legal liability."

Hoffer said once the legal and jurisdictional questions are answered, it is likely that rural Grand Forks residents could be part of a buyout program, adding that the issue may be cleared up within a week.

"We want to make sure when we're doing this process that we're doing it right," Hoffer said.

Further dismay

Klava and some of her neighbors became particularly dismayed when they learned last week that Traill County invited people who might qualify for federal flood buyouts to informational meetings. Traill County is partnering in the program with the Red River Regional Council, based in Grafton, N.D.

Grand Forks County Emergency Manager Jim Campbell said the county has not formally applied for the federal buyout program this year. An application process has not opened yet.

Under the HMPG program, the federal government provides 75 percent, while the state pays 10 percent. The local government is supposed to contribute or provide the remaining 15 percent.

The Red River Regional Council already has offered to administer the program.


"If they'd consider allowing townships to apply, I'd be happy to administer the grants," said Janet Dvorak, flood mitigation coordinator for the council. "They don't have the funding or administrative expertise."

Campbell said that as soon as he gets an answer from the state and federal offices that people living in locally zoned townships qualify for the federal program through the county, he will schedule a public meeting to talk about the process.


To be eligible, flood damage has to be at least 50 percent of the property's value.

Klava said that wouldn't be any problem for the home at their riverside farmstead.

If FEMA would approve an application this year in Grand Forks County, the homes identified likely would be demolished by the end of 2010, according to Dvorak.

In the past, it sometimes has taken more than a year to finish the buyout process. But FEMA has changed its rules, allowing just 90 days to dispose of a property once the buyout is approved.

For the Klavas, the sooner the better.


"We can't spend any money to repair or replace anything now. If we get a buyout, we could be wasting our money," she said. "Buyouts take a long time, but if we knew a buyout was coming, we could deal with it."

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