With winter coming quickly in North Dakota, federal officials are racing to finish up to 2,400 temporary homes for Minot residents displaced by the worst flooding in the city's history.
Only a third of the temporary homes are in place and occupied. The Federal Emergency Management Agency official in charge of the effort said the project is the third largest in the agency's history, behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008, and among the most difficult because of the North Dakota's tough landscape and an already-tight housing market created by the state's booming oil patch.
"The number of people displaced and the shortage of housing makes this unique," said Dolph Diemont, FEMA's coordinating officer.
Record flooding from the Souris River swamped some 4,100 homes this summer and displaced nearly 11,000 residents. Federal officials have estimated the temporary housing project will cost $237 million.
FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are placing two-and three-bedroom units designed to withstand North Dakota's notoriously brutal winters throughout the city. The structures' design is modeled after oil-field housing used in Arctic conditions, officials said. The agencies aim to have all the units done and occupied by November.
Some residents began moving this week into a 600-unit compound on a 210-acre parcel about two miles southeast of Minot. The Virgil Workman Village is named for a longtime FEMA employee who died Aug. 19 in Bismarck.
Justin and Sonja Neubauer and their three children slept in beds Monday for the first time in nearly five months in their new 920-square-foot, three-bedroom temporary home. Floodwaters chased the Neubauers from their apartment in June, forcing them to live with dozens of other families at an indoor tennis court converted into a shelter.
"It was awesome sleeping in a home," Sonja Neubauer said. "All we had at the shelter were air mattresses, and it smelled like diapers and stinky feet. But it wasn't too bad, really."
Most of the Neubauers' new neighbors are people they met at the shelter. Families can live in the temporary units at no cost for 18 months, and preference is being given to those who have been living in shelters, tents or campers, FEMA spokesman Scott Chamberlain said.
The Neubauers said they hope to save enough cash over the next several months to buy their own home.
"We'd love to buy a double-wide (mobile home) or a new house because we want to stay in Minot," Sonja Neubauer said. "We love it here."
North Dakota National Guard Maj. Gen. Murray Sagsveen, who is directing flood recovery efforts, said a survey of 5,000 displaced residents found that 44 percent planned to rebuild in the city. About 25 percent were undecided, while 10 percent said they would either sell or walk away from their homes.
Only 375 homes in the flooded areas of Minot had flood insurance, according to FEMA.
Sagsveen said he was hopeful enough permanent housing could be built to replace the temporary units over the next 18 months. The city already is swarming with workers cleaning up and rebuilding.
"It's like a beehive out there right now," he said.