BURLINGTON - After Burlington lost its flood battle on June 24, 2011, Jerry Thomas gave up his damaged house next to the levee to leave the city room for future flood control.
He quickly bought another house in Burlington and started looking around for more. Thomas bought a flooded house in his old neighborhood, removing and replacing it with a modular home that he is renting for now. He also has his eye on another piece of valley property that he hopes to restore.
"I love this area," he said. "I live here because I like it here."
Houses like these shown Wednesday show signs of rebuilding or replacement in Burlington.
Many of his former neighbors also are coming back to the winding streets and modest homes of their peaceful subdivision, nestled near the gentle river that turned on them in 2011.
"It's not going to happen again," Thomas says with certainty.
Burlington's long-time mayor, Jerome Gruenberg, said the community generally shares that confidence.
"I see us coming back stronger than ever," Gruenberg said. "It will take a long time before we are back at 100 percent, but I am seeing so many positive things. People rebuilding. People excited about getting their yards back in order and their houses back in order. We are a pretty resilient group of people. I think it's a positive sign. I think that we will be back to where we were nice neighborhoods and homes are fixed up. We have a lot of people who are willing to help each other. The volunteerism in Burlington has always been great."
On the edge of the busy oil fields to the west and just minutes from Minot, Burlington could be poised for explosive growth in the coming year as well.
The city is seeking a $2.7 million Community Development Block Grant to enable the De-Sour Valley Economic Development Corp. to buy land and install infrastructure for an affordable housing project on the southeast edge of town. The project would include 40 single-family homes, 18 townhouses and a park and trail system.
Earlier this year, Burlington annexed 700 acres for developments that could someday add up to 5,000 new residents to the 1,060 townspeople counted in the 2010 census.
The economic development group also owns the land hosting Federal Emergency Management temporary housing units. Earlier this month, there were 37 occupied units at De Sour Valley Heights.
FEMA is waiting for a formal reply from the city or development group about their plans once FEMA ends its housing mission next June. If neither wants to operate the site to enable units to stay, FEMA will begin next spring to offer occupants a chance to move to the Virgil Workman Village near Minot and close De Sour Valley Heights. The site had 50 occupied units at its peak.
Gruenberg said the city and development group are not considering operating a mobile home park for the temporary units. Originally, the economic development group had intended to develop the property with housing, but because of plans for other housing developments in Burlington, the group is reconsidering, he said. There is the possibility of commercial development or a mix of commercial and residential.
"We have a lot of vision," Gruenberg said. "We are excited. We are growing. Our engineer estimates that our population may increase in the next three years by 4,000 people maybe even more."
That proposed growth is outside of the flood plain. But there are signs that the flooded valley is coming back, too.
"The recovery is actually coming along pretty well," Gruenberg said.
The formerly flooded area now is a mix of new modular homes, repaired homes and homes still undergoing repair. A flooded mobile home park that later temporarily housed 34 FEMA units is getting back into business with manufactured homes.
The community sports complex, which has been a source of pride in Burlington, still is in a state of recovery even after cleanup and reseeding. The goal is to finish the landscaping and get the complex back into operation next year.
At Peace Lutheran Church, the flood filled up the basement and caused main-floor carpet to ripple from humidity. The church cleaned, replaced carpet and is using its basement for storage and as temporary quarters for youth ministries and Boy Scouts. Meanwhile, it is constructing a 5,300-square foot, above-ground addition that will enable the church to bring back classrooms, before- and after-school child care and a food pantry. The addition and remodel will include a larger fellowship hall and a larger, new kitchen.
Mike Haider, who has been spearheading the volunteer work on the construction, said the project could be just weeks away from completion if workers become available. Progress has been slow since a Mission Builders team concluded about six months of help last fall. Mission Builders aids Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations such as Peace.
"We made good friends with all of them. They became part of our congregation," said Haider, who would have them back in a heartbeat. "It was that much of a joy to have them here. It was fantastic."
However, Haider calls the building project "a real leap of faith." Refinishing the basement and making it handicapped accessible was cost-prohibitive so the church elected to build new, trying to keep costs affordable with the help of Mission Builders and local volunteers.
The City of Burlington gave residents breaks on water and sewer charges and waived building permits to help them with the cost of getting back into their homes.
Some homeowners lack the means or sometimes the desire to rebuild. Several houses today are either untouched or haven't advanced beyond gutting.
Jim Heckman, environmental health director with First District Health Unit, Minot, said the health unit investigated a number of homes and, in some cases, homeowners resolved the health and safety issues.
"There will be several that will likely be receiving demolition orders," he said, adding that owners even at that point could choose to repair rather than demolish the homes.
Burlington has repaired its infrastructure damaged by the flood and is looking at expansion. Gruenberg said the city will need to improve the water and sewer system and build new streets to accommodate the projected growth, but improvements will be the expense of the developers.
Burlington residents supported a citywide special assessment to pay for acquisition and demolition of 11 houses near the dike for future flood protection. The cost for homeowners averages $400 a year for 20 years, but financial assistance from the North Dakota Water Commission now will enable the city to pay back the Bank of North Dakota loan for the project in five years, Gruenberg said. That will eliminate the special assessment early.
To offset the cost in the meantime, the city is using proceeds from the sale of water from city wells to the oil field to pay special assessments for a water tank and street improvements. Gruenberg said the city will be able to pay those bills off early as well.
Burlington obtains water from the Northwest Area Water Supply project but keeps its wells operational for fire suppression. The wells have a large enough supply to allow for the water sales, Gruenberg said.
Burlington also is prepared with a plan for the construction of new levees if money ever becomes available to build them.
"That's put on hold because the Corps of Engineers has to be involved. It could take years," Gruenberg said. "In the meantime, the levees that have been repaired are at the previous 100-year protection."
Before Bill Preston rebuilt his flooded home, he first raised the house four feet. The former single-story house now has an lower level that someday could be finished. In the meantime, the Prestons, who moved back in April while continuing the construction, feel secure in knowing that they are safe from high water until better flood protection comes along.
"If it were to flood again right now, it would get nothing except the sewer pipe and dirt," Preston said. "We figured out it would have to go two feet higher than what it was to get up onto the main level."
Burlington is no stranger to flooding, having had to fight the pesky Des Lacs River multiple times, including in 2011. Residents sitting largely unprotected along the Des Lacs, where it meets up with the Souris in Burlington, experienced flooding caused by spring runoff.
When the Souris overtopped the city's nearly 6,000 cfs of dike protection in 2011, the city fought well to 10,000 cubic feet of river flow per second. Even at 15,000 cfs, Gruenberg said, the city was able to deal with problems that started occurring. The sudden arrival of nearly 27,000 cfs inundated everything, though.
Having removed several homes along the river, the city now has the ability to get equipment to the levees should it become necessary to build up protection. The city also has identified weak spots in the existing levee so it can monitor those in times of high water.
No one is making any guarantees. But if the Souris ever rages again, Burlington believes it is more than ready for the fight.