August 7, 2022

Even Boom States Get the Blues

Among them was Lisa Tankersley, whose husband was one of the thousands to land a well-paying job in the oil fields that are helping to drive the economic boom. She arrived at her new home here last Monday afternoon, weary from the two-day drive from East Texas. Fifteen minutes later, not having unloaded a single box, she was ordered by a police officer to evacuate: floodwaters were on the way.

“I was freaking out,” said Ms. Tankersley, who immediately threatened to drive back to Texas but consented to stay indefinitely at the apartment of friends who had also migrated north. “Here I am, hundreds of miles from home, with my two children and all my worldly belongings, and I have no place to live.”

In many ways this has been a year of triumph for North Dakota, home to the nation’s lowest unemployment rate and fastest growing economy. But with historic flooding from one side of the state to the other, this is also the year when North Dakota reminded its residents that even in good times the state is — in the words of Andy Peterson, head of the state Chamber of Commerce — “not for the faint of heart.”

First the Red River flooded to near record heights for the third consecutive year, forcing weeks of desperate work to protect Fargo, the state’s largest city. Later, the unprecedented rise of the Missouri River forced Bismarck, the state’s capital and second largest city, into a flood fight expected to last the whole summer. And over the last week, the Souris River broke the century-old high mark not by inches but by feet, swamping more than a quarter of Minot.

Together, these and other waterways — fed by record rain and snow — harassed large and small communities, forcing evacuations, destroying crops and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure. But even as officials acknowledged that the extreme weather would cause hardships for the many affected residents and perhaps chase away some of the newcomers, they insisted that it would not knock the galloping economy off its stride.

“Will this flooding set us back some? Yes it will,” said Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who grew up in Minot and focused on promoting economic development during his three terms as governor before winning election to the Senate last year. “But our fundamentals are there. We’ll recover, we’ll help people recover, and we’ll continue to grow.”

Tucked into a narrow valley and surrounded by plains, Minot, the fourth largest city in the state, offers a case study in this roller coaster year. The city, serving as a regional hub for the northwest corner of the state, has experienced frenetic growth over the last decade, driven largely by development of the nearby Bakken shale field, which has made the state one of the top producers of oil. Then, last week, it went under water.

The Souris River, known as the Mouse after its French name, stopped rising on Sunday. The crest topped the 130-year-old record by almost four feet, lower than predictions. But the river, which flooded many homes to their roofs and displaced an estimated 12,000 people, is expected to subside slowly, so residents must wait to see what damage lies beneath the muddy surface.

“Before the flood, the major challenge Minot faced was how do you handle the growth?” said John Coughlin, a developer who stopped work on several projects to help build protective levees.

“The flood has distracted the forward momentum,” he continued. “The recovery is going to cost money, and it’s going to cost time.”

Over the last decade, the population of North Dakota grew to 673,000, just short of the high mark achieved eight decades earlier. And while high commodity prices in an economy driven by energy and agriculture has led the growth, Gov. Jack Dalrymple said a diversified economy had been fostered by businesses-friendly laws, regulations and taxes passed during years of economic malaise and population loss.

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