Temperatures reached brutal lows. Repeated blizzards shut down the highway system leaving road crews working 24-hour days. Motorists were trapped, and massive snow drifts virtually buried houses. Thousands of livestock expired. Then snowmelt caused near-biblical flooding. More than 2,200 square miles of land were soaked in water, an area the size of two Rhode Islands. Sixty-thousand people had to be evacuated, and floodwaters crested at a history-making 54 feet. Despite extraordinary destruction, experts consider the 1997 Red River flood in Grand Forks, N.D., to be an outstanding example of disaster response and recovery done right. Federally funded technical consultants convened a group of citizens and government officials to establish clear priorities that eventually became a comprehensive plan for overcoming the catastrophe. Articulating specific goals and objectives and then adhering to them allowed coordinators to conceive of and execute projects across multiple layers of government – failed cooperation and bureaucratic bumbling being a frequent failure in mass-disaster scenarios. A team of engineers, urban development staff, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers collaborated to create an inventory of significantly damaged buildings, for example. Each task had a set deadline. The city erected Noah’s Ark, a commercial building that displaced small businesses in the region could temporarily use as office space. It later became an Amazon.com call center. Authorities bought out homeowners giving them enough to rebuild while overhauling land-use rules to block new construction in known flood zones. “To help protect its residents from contractor fraud, the city established a required credentialing program for contractors,” a federal Government Accountability Office director testified to the House Homeland Security Committee in March of 2009 praising the Grand Forks effort. “This included a ‘one-stop shop’ that served as a mandatory clearinghouse for contractors that wanted to do business with recovering residents. State and local officials carried out a variety of functions, including checking that contractors had appropriate licenses and insurance and did not have criminal records.” But not everything has gone perfect for North Dakota in emergency management since then. The state used homeland security grants for paying emergency personnel $300,000 in salary increases just over a two-year period after Sept. 11. Auditors later said that at least some of them violated state law or weren’t sufficiently justified. One employee received a salary hike of nearly 75 percent and several others benefitted from increases of over 30 percent, according to a 2005 report from North Dakota’s state auditor. Officials admitted that a “detailed explanation for the increases was lacking” and pointed to greater workloads employees were forced to handle. Auditors still wanted the state’s attorney general to help determine whether the increases were legal. The report also said a former emergency director for the state who appeared to single handedly authorize the increases “micro-managed” North Dakota’s recovery and public safety functions. Top executives didn’t communicate well with the rank-and-file, and the state had a “poor working relationship” with local preparedness coordinators. Legislators in North Dakota complained about the salaries and eventually shook things up creating a new Department of Emergency Services and placing the commander of the North Dakota National Guard in charge. Auditors returned three years later to determine how much had improved since the initial report. Several recommendations were implemented by then, but they still cast as mediocre a subsequent review of salaries paid to managers and continued to question them. Their report also found that phone companies had improperly withheld $61,000 from customers that was supposed to be used for operating the state’s emergency 911 system. Critics in addition have panned North Dakota for being an unlikely target of terrorists yet spending federal homeland security grants on high-tech widgets for fighting Al-Qaeda. The state’s own former lieutenant governor, Lloyd Omdahl, even ridiculed officials for indulging in the funds. “What would a terrorist strike? The only building we have that they could fly into is the state capitol in Bismarck,” Omdahl told the New York Times in a story about the purchase of a $200,000 bomb-disposal robot by Grand Forks. A police officer there defended the purchase arguing that insurgents in Iraq targeted local polling and police stations – its own town institutions could similarly be vulnerable “soft targets.” State officials turned over to us four large PDFs showing how they’ve used anti-terrorism and readiness grants from Washington since 1999 after we submitted a request under North Dakota’s open-records laws. The files are available for download here. They show that beyond a robot, Grand Forks also bought radiation detectors costing $1,500 each, night-vision goggles at $3,100 a piece and nearly three-dozen Panasonic Toughbook laptop computers totaling more than $188,000.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz