There was one name that came up quickly when the governor and adjutant general of the North Dakota Army National Guard sat down last June to select a state flood recovery coordinator.
"Right away we thought of his experience in the Grand Forks flood of 1997," Gov. Jack Dalrymple said of Maj. Gen. Murray Sagsveen. "That experience is really unduplicated by any other person in North Dakota or in the nation for that matter. That experience is proving to be very, very valuable."
Sagsveen, a Lansford native, brings a wealth of knowledge to the position by virtue of his extensive experience in state government, law and especially in dealing with people.
Jill Schramm/MDN • Sen. John Hoeven and Maj. Gen. Murray Sagsveen walk along the Broadway dike in July to view damage from the flood.
"He's a very personable, very approachable guy. People seem to like him immediately," Dalrymple said. "People right away trust him."
The public's respect has been essential in Sagsveen's role as a facilitator, mediator and coordinator.
However, the job hasn't been easy for Sagsveen, as evident in his first assignment to get Minot's flooded mobile home courts cleaned up.
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"It was one of the most frustrating experiences that I have had," Sagsveen said. "We tried to have FEMA clean up the courts so that people could move back in. That dragged on and on and on, and finally FEMA realized they needed the mobile home courts so it changed from being a public assistance effort to an individual assistance effort. They went in and cleaned up the mobile home courts, rented the spaces and moved FEMA temporary housing units into the courts."
Other recovery priorities have been nearly as challenging, including bringing more electrical inspectors into Minot, getting self-wiring permissions for residents and the on-going project of attaining compensation for homeowners whose properties were damaged by dike construction.
Sagsveen also served on the state committee that reviewed applicants and recommended an engineering firm to design a Souris River flood control project. He has visited with Velva city commissioners about levees, with the Renville County Commission and Park Board about Mouse River Park damages and traveled to Devils Lake and southeastern North Dakota, which are dealing with their own water problems. Although he has an office in Bismarck, he's there only a few hours a week on average. There are some late nights and early mornings and a lot of travel.
"I do a lot of thinking when I am in the car," he said. It's where he solves problems.
Dalrymple said Sagsveen's greatest talent is his ability to sort through federal programs and bureaucracy to determine what needs to be done.
"His ability to weave through the maze of that complexity and see how to solve a problem in the best possible way is really unique," he said.
Mayor Curt Zimbelman said Sagsveen's knowledge base is an asset for Minot, especially his experience in Grand Forks.
"Because he's been through it, he's seen it, he knows how it worked in Grand Forks. Not that everything there is going to work here but it at least helps you to have that level of confidence in what you are doing," he said.
Sagsveen had just retired from the Guard in 1996 when he was called up in 1997 to coordinate law enforcement after the Grand Forks flood, later serving as flood recovery coordinator. The devastating sights and smells of that event remain fresh in his mind even after 14 years. It was those memories that made it easy to say "yes" when asked to coordinate recovery in 2011.
"You can't say no because you know what it is like," he said.
Minot differs from Grand Forks in some ways, including the larger amount of time that Sagsveen must to devote to housing issues.
"You don't solve the housing issue, you don't solve the recovery issue," he said. "We see a lot of progress. But for the recovery effort, particularly with the housing, there is so much ahead right now. If we can get some infrastructure money, get the private developers connected with infrastructure and have people reasonably confident that there will be an enhanced flood protection for the city and have those things going and there's no flood or threat of flood next year people's spirits will be greatly improved. ... Hopefully, in 10 years, you look back and say, 'yes, you know it was a disaster in 2011 but look at everything we have done because of that.'"
The Souris River inundated much of Minot at the end of June, just when Sagsveen was acting on a timeline he set two years earlier to retire as general counsel for an international medical association in St. Paul, Minn. He planned to return to his Bismarck home and enjoy his retirement.
"I turned 65 this summer and I wanted to spend time boating on the river," Sagsveen said, chuckling at how those plans went awry. Record releases from the Garrison Dam halted recreation on the Missouri River.
"There was no boating on the river. I also fly remote-controlled airplanes and I wanted to have more time flying the airplanes, but the flying field was flooded," he said.
Before packing to return to his Bismarck home, he sent a note to the adjutant general, Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, to say he was willing to help in any way with the flood recovery. Thinking that he might be needed for a minor role, he accepted the general's invitation to talk. When Sagsveen arrived, he was ushered into a meeting with the governor, who wanted him to step into the coordinator's job in Minot that afternoon in uniform.
"I went home and tried to find a uniform that fit," Sagsveen said of his response. "After years and years in the National Guard, when the governor asks you to do something, you don't say 'I would like to think about it.'"
Sagsveen joined the National Guard after serving with the U.S. Army in Korea. His wife, Kristi, taught at North Hill Elementary School, now Lewis & Clark, in Minot while he was in Korea.
A 1973 graduate of the University of North Dakota School of Law, Sagsveen held several positions in state government, including legislative assistant to Gov. Art Link and legal officer for the State Water Commission. Sagsveen entered private practice in 1980 but continued to work with state agencies and local governments.
He was general counsel for the North Dakota Medical Association from 1986 to 1997 and counsel for the North Dakota Medical Group Management Association. During that period, he drafted legislation on complex legal-medical issues, testified before legislative committees, authored a number of published articles concerning medical issues and was an instructor on health law in a graduate program for nurses.
Sagsveen served as state health officer from 1998 to 2000, continuing in later years to be involved in legal issues related to health care and bioterrorism. He has studied ethics, theology and became certified in executive management. He helped train physicians in Turkmenistan and participated in a medical conference to assist Iraqi physicians to establish medical societies. Since 2005, he and other retired generals and admirals have been involved in supporting Human Rights First, concerning treatment of detainees at Guantanamo and other locations, and in the Truman National Security Project, focusing on national security implications of climate change.
Sagsveen considers it all training for what he is doing now.
Like the vivid memories from Grand Forks, images from Minot have imprinted themselves in his mind. One that strikes an emotional chord was his encounter with a homeowner while escorting an international news reporter in Eastwood Park. The homeowner was rehabilitating her flooded home.
"She was so upbeat and so positive," Sagsveen said. "It was just amazing."
It's that kind of homeowner resolve that convinces him that Minot will come back as a better community. He expects to be around as long as needed to help achieve that recovery. As long as the governor wants him, he's not going anywhere.
"But for the fact that it's a disaster, I love what I do," Sagsveen said.