Midwest Communities Share Flood Recovery Advice

by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News

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April 2, 2019, 7:45 a.m.

Last month eastern Nebraska experienced record flooding. Towns are recovering. For many this may be uncharted territory. However, there are lessons to be learned from other Midwestern communities that have gone through floods and rebuilt.


Burlington, North Dakota sits near the Canadian border and at the convergence of two rivers: the De Lac and the Souris. In 2011, already high waters from snow melt combined with seven inches of rain north along the river to cause significant flooding in Burlington.

Jeanine Kabanuk is the mayor of Burlington.

“So it did hit about two-thirds of our town and most of them, most of the people have rebuilt. There was some houses that ended up being bought out for future flood protection, which is just getting underway now,” Kabanuk said.

For that rebuilding process, Kabanuk has some advice. First of all, document everything.

“FEMA comes in. They give you a certain allocation of money. But you have to prove that, you have to claim that on your taxes. So make sure that receipts and record keeping is very important,” Kabanuk said.

Kabanuk also warns communities to look out for bad actors who may defraud people going through a tragedy.

“There’s always gonna be people out there that will take advantage of the people that have been flooded… Just be aware of, do some background checks… We had a lot of contractors that came in without contracting licenses and they just rebuilt stuff and left. Well, then we come to find out that nothing’s up to code,” Kabanuk said.

The extent of the damage forced Burlington to have community meetings about what citizens wanted from rebuilding. The suggestions weren’t limited to the direct results of flooding.

“Actually one of the things that came out of those meetings was more activities for youth, so we’re in the process of building a splash pad. They’re starting on it this spring. Finally got funds raised for that,” Kabanuk said.

Burlington is not unique in working to rebuild better than they were before.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota has been through floods more than once, including mild flooding last year and again this year.

Doug Blomker is assistant director of emergency management for Minnehaha County, South Dakota where Sioux Falls is located. He says in years past there were lots of homes along the river.

“When they started flooding, they figured, ‘Well, this is not good, we need to change that,’ so changing zoning, moving those homes farther away from the river and then putting our parks along the river of course so that when we did get flooding you know, those parks, that’s exactly what they’re there for. For people to enjoy, but it’s there to take the brunt of that type of weather so we can protect homes and protect critical infrastructure,” Blomker said.

Blomker says Sioux Falls has worked through structural changes to help prevent flooding as well. FEMA advised the city its levee system was not sufficient and expanded flood maps.

“In talking with the Army Corps of Engineers what the city of Sioux Falls did was they stepped up, they increased the height of those levees, beefed them up, made them stronger, taller, and prepared that way so that they could take more water. Then once that was done, FEMA reevaluated and dropped that down,” Blomker said.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa has also been through more than one flood. They were hit badly in 2008, and then again in 2016.

Jeff Pomeranz is city manager for Cedar Rapids. He says recovery there has defied expectations.

“In fact there were some that thought that maybe Cedar Rapids as Iowa’s second largest city really wouldn’t come back, certainly to the strength that it was before, but others thought maybe it wouldn’t come back at all,” Pomeranz said.

Pomeranz says successful recovery started early.

“We learned a lot of lessons along the way and we believe that it was our planning at the very beginning that really helped us come back better and stronger than we were before. Now it took ten years really for me to be able to make that statement,” Pomeranz said.

Pomeranz also emphasizes the kind of community discourse that went on in Burlington, North Dakota.

“Keep in mind that it’s important to, as you begin to come back and rebuild, involve your citizens, but also recognize, absolutely recognize that you need the federal government, you need your state government, and also all the resources not just of your community but of adjoining communities and neighboring communities,” Pomeranz said.

Cedar Rapids has worked with the federal government on long-term flood protection, which is now being built ten years after the 2008 flooding. Pomeranz says if you believe something is important for your community, it’s important to be persistent.

“Don’t be afraid to take your message to Washington, D.C. We did and we got a lot of help. So right after the flood we got again very good support from our senators, but we also said, ‘How can we help you?’ So we went to D.C. and we told our story and we were able to get some additional assistance because of that,” Pomeranz said.

In Nebraska, federal assistance is increasing. Over the weekend six additional counties and the Santee Sioux Nation were added to the list of areas eligible for individual FEMA assistance.