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Buyouts in Mott, ND, Reduce Risks, Return Revenue

MOTT, ND - Surrounded by farmland on the prairie of southwest North Dakota, Mott, with a population of about 800, offers a Norman Rockwell, small-town lifestyle –one that is idyllic and a little old-fashioned. But like much of the state, Mott, which is built on the banks of the Cannonball River, has had a long history and high risk of flooding.

Since 1943, rapid snowmelt, heavy rains, and intense thunderstorms led to flooding along the river. In addition, the formation of ice jams, mainly at bridges, has sometimes weakened the bridges and caused water backup into the city.

After flooding in 1997, the city utilized funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reduce the flood risk on the floodprone west side of the Cannonball River. Homes and lots were purchased and replaced with open space that is used for a park and campground. As a result, during the widespread flooding of 2009, much of the area was again inundated, but damage was minimal.

“The water displacement wasn’t as bad because the houses weren’t there,” said Mayor Troy Mosbrucker. “There wasn’t as much damage because the water wasn’t as high.” His observations were consistent with computer modeling that has shown that, even for smaller flood events, acquiring the homes and land took people and structures out of harm’s way and provided financial benefits to the community.

Mosbrucker, a Mott native who became mayor in 2003, recalled the area before the buyouts. Single-family homes, built mainly in the mid-1900s, stood among tall cottonwood and elm trees. Three grain elevators were nearby, along with a train depot that was later converted to a day center for seniors. Mosbrucker also recalled the 1997 flood. A volunteer firefighter at the time, he helped with the mandatory evacuations of 50 families. He remembers the water was rising as people were leaving their homes.

Similarly, long-time resident Vic Messmer has vivid memories of his losses due to the 1997 flood.

“We had tremendous damage,” he said, adding he was flooded out three different times over the years. After 1997, he and his wife, Clara, had “no other option” than to take the buyout. They now live in a home on higher ground on the other side of the river.

In all, the buyouts included 25 homes and 19 adjacent lots. FEMA contributed $97,123 through Flood Mitigation Assistance and $319,755 through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The combined amounts represented 75 percent of the total cost of $555,837 with the balance coming from the state. The North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, working closely with FEMA, administered the grants.

After the city purchased the homes, a public auction was held to sell them, defraying project costs. Two homes were moved to higher ground, including one owned by the mayor’s brother. After cabinets, fixtures, and materials were auctioned, the remaining structures were burned to provide training for the fire department volunteers.

In keeping with FEMA requirements, the land in the buyout area was deed restricted so that it can never again be developed with permanent structures. The area now includes a park and a 25-space campground, which are operated by the Mott Park District with the city’s permission. These recreational uses do not involve permanent structures or long-term occupancy. Both could be readily evacuated on short notice.

Harvest workers use the campground in the summer, followed in the fall and winter by pheasant hunters who may double or triple Mott’s population. Revenue from the campground, which came to approximately $300,000 by 2009, has been used to make improvements to the public swimming pool. The grain elevators remain in West Mott, while the senior center was moved to the east side of the Cannonball River.

Mayor Mosbrucker said Mott is “holding our own on population.” He explained that some people who grew up in Mott return after they retire. Others move into town when their children take over their farming operations. “We’ve actually seen a spike in new homes in Mott recently,” the mayor said, adding that there are no longer vacant lots suitable for building within the city.