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Flooded, Burned Town Faces Rebuilding Grand Forks Business Owners, Officials Exhausted, Facing Difficult Questions

Sun., May 4, 1997

Sandra Korsmoe’s budding downtown business burned to nothing in a matter of minutes. Now, she’s milking cows 100 miles away, unsure what her future holds.

“Everything I owned is gone,” Korsmoe said. “I’m 54-1/2 years old, so the whole thought of starting over just exhausts me at this point.”

Sandra Korsmoe Productions - an advertising, fund-raising and newsletter design company - was among dozens of businesses destroyed late last month as fire and floodwaters overwhelmed this city of 50,000.

Grand Forks and Red Cross officials estimate more than 1,500 businesses and 11,000 homes were flooded or burned. Regionally, cleanup costs are pegged as high as $1.75 billion. Now, home and business owners are wondering whether to stay or go.

“I don’t have long-term plans,” Korsmoe said.

The wayward Red River, which separates North Dakota and Minnesota and flows into Canada, has dropped 11 feet since rushing into the city April 18. Tap water and sewer service are gradually coming back. So are the people. What’s left are gut-wrenching decisions.

Hal Gershman is a stockholder and board member of First National Bank, which burned to the ground. He said businesses wavering over whether to rebuild or relocate want to know one thing: Can the Red be held in check?

“The future is for this never to happen again. That’s the main thing. We can’t go through this again,” Gershman said.

Some want a ring dike built around the entire city - 10-1/2 square miles. Some want water diverted elsewhere. Others want both. Gershman suggested the city could pay farmers to restrain runoff by storing water on their land.

As the gargantuan task of rebuilding begins, many also are asking: How will the city change? Some movement westward, clear of the Red’s banks, is expected, as is a minor exodus. The rest is unclear.

“The face of business in Grand Forks will be different a year from now, both in terms of the number of businesses, types of businesses and locations of businesses,” Gershman said. “How it will change? We don’t know that yet. But there is a tremendous spirit here to rebuild bigger and better.”

The University of North Dakota and nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base, anchors of the local economy, suffered relatively little flood damage. It’s the coffee shops, restaurants and other small businesses that need help.

Mayor Pat Owens said the recently revitalized downtown will change but not vanish, and refurbishing plans will take time.

A major factor in keeping Grand Forks’ status as a regional trade hub will be financial help.

Bruce Gjovig, president of the University of North Dakota’s Center for Innovation and Rural Technology, said the federal government should provide more than loans.

“There’s lots of business that have existing debt,” Gjovig said. “Lots of additional debt is not the solution. … Too much debt will kill these businesses.”

Before the flood, voters approved a $70 million events center on the west side of town. Now, some think it should be scrapped so money can go elsewhere.

“I hope they give the money to business people to rebuild,” said Dennis West, training coordinator for the flooded-out Options Resource Center, a government-subsidized business that helps disabled people live independently.

Korsmoe’s $60,000 business was covered by fire insurance, but since the blaze appears to have been caused by flood-related electrical problems, her insurance company won’t pay.

She is living in an apartment in Lake Park, Minn., where she milks cows at Northern Star Dairy. Her husband remains at their farm four miles west of Grand Forks, where he’s housing flood refugees.

Korsmoe plans to move home by fall, but her job future could be up in the air for some time. “I’m discouraged,” she said.

Sue Butler’s downtown Hallmark store was ruined by floodwaters.

“I’ll probably end up in Texas,” she said.

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