MINOT, N.D. – Dozens of residents returned to their waterlogged homes on Wednesday for the first time since the Souris River breached its banks and inundated much of Minot last month. Some cried, overwhelmed by the destruction, and others wasted no time trying salvage what was left of the homes, most of which were not insured against flooding.
James Warner, 64, who was among the first residents to return to his northwest Minot neighborhood since the evacuation order was issued June 22, said the devastation to his home was as bad as it could have been.
"I'd almost wish I'd been hit by a tornado instead of a flood and maybe just lost a roof," Warner said. "It's swamped. There's mold and ugliness and the sanitary conditions are causing a terrible stench."
By midmorning, ruined carpets, drywall and appliances began piling up in front yards, in front of ducks and fish swimming in the flooded streets and sidewalks.
The watermark on many houses was more than 5 feet off the ground, and the rot and destruction laid bare by the receding floodwater painted a grim portrait for thousands of others still waiting to return home.
About 11,000 people were evacuated from Minot neighborhoods nearest the river before it broke a high-water record that had stood for 130 years and later crested at about 1,561.7 feet above sea level, nearly 13 feet above flood stage.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency Survey found 4,100 homes damaged, including 805 that were under more than 10 feet of water and 2,400 that were under at least 6 feet. Mayor Curt Zimbelman said demolition may be the only answer for nearly one-fifth of the damaged homes.
Only 375 homes in the affected areas were insured against flooding, according to FEMA, and Zimbelman said most residents are anxious to return home to try to save what they can.
"I think once they will be able to assess the damage, it's going to help," the mayor said. "At least now they'll know what they're up against."
Warner said his wife, Sheila, wasn't prepared emotionally to look at their home of 25 years, where they raised their children.
"We have put so much time and money into this house, she could not bear to see it like this," Warner said. "Maybe she'll want to see it once I get all the water pumped out of it."
The single-story ranch home still had about 3 feet of water in its basement on Wednesday.
Warner, an aircraft mechanic, said his son's home across the street and four homes that belong to relatives were also flooded.
Connie Susag, who lives in Rhame in southwest North Dakota, surveyed her daughter's home in Minot for the first time Wednesday and was choked up by the damage and the stench.
"I just want to cry," Susag said, fighting back tears. "This is not a good day. I don't know what to do. This is very, very, hard to deal with."
Retired teacher Dean Serr was watery-eyed and short on words as he surveyed his home.
"One hundred percent of everything is shot," Serr said. His appliances, furniture, carpet and new snowblower were ruined, as was his prized collection of taxidermy mounts that included more than 60 now-soggy ducks.
"I've got every duck, both male and female, of every one of them that comes through the flyway in North Dakota. They're ruined," Serr said.
Jake Hostetler, 30, an Air Force B-52 bomber pilot now stationed in Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, drove to North Dakota over the weekend to survey the damage to his home. Friends in Texas donated pumps and tools so he and his friend, Paul Galan, could gut the home and begin drying it out.
The men had taken more than a ton of drywall, carpet, damaged furniture and appliances to the city dump since Tuesday night, he said.
"I'm pretty sure we'll be able to save it," said Hostetler, who intends to move back into the home with his wife and two young children later this year after he is reassigned to Minot.
Down the street, the water was still knee-deep on Brian Axelson's front lawn, but it had receded from the main floor of his modest ranch home. A North Dakota National Guard soldier escorted Axelson, who donned chest waders, to his home so that he could open windows to begin drying it out.
"It didn't look pretty," Axelson said of his first look at the home in more than two weeks. "There's 3 feet of water in it. I saw a perch swimming on the sidewalk."
Axelson bought the home this spring, before the flood threat emerged, and he has no flood insurance.
"Hopefully, we can put it all back together and keep going," he said. "That's all you can do."
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