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Floodwaters pay state line no heed

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For now, heroic efforts have kept at bay the nightmarish scenario of a raging river completely engulfing those other twin cities of Fargo and Moorhead. But as Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson banks his small Beechcraft Bonanza high above the region, it's clear that disaster has not been averted entirely.

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Down below, the muddy, winding Red River has claimed neighborhoods, schools, farmsteads, roads and parks. Among the hardest hit: Oakport Township to Moorhead's north, and the Oak Grove Lutheran school campus in Fargo. Winter's steely grip makes it difficult to tell just how far the floodwaters have stretched on either side of the river that forms part of Minnesota's western border. Ice and snow blur the swollen Red's new boundaries as it invades the frozen prairie. From Peterson's plane, it's not always clear where Minnesota ends and North Dakota begins.

But where that state line runs will play a critical and potentially complicating role in recovery efforts as the floodwaters recede. Among the many challenges that come with fighting the north-flowing Red is that, from a federal assistance standpoint, the presence of a state border artificially divides this natural disaster in two. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Denver, Colo., office assists Fargo. FEMA's Chicago office helps Moorhead and the Minnesota side. And while FEMA officials say the agency is doing everything possible to ensure aid flows quickly, there are already concerns here that this division will give one state an advantage over the other.

It's a situation that will require careful management and extra effort in communications from FEMA. And it merits the close scrutiny it's getting from Minnesota's congressional delegation. Peterson, who has monitored floodwaters with his plane, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar have met with FEMA officials over the past week. They and Gov. Tim Pawlenty have been strong advocates for getting aid flowing quickly to all flood victims, no matter which side of the border they live on. Peterson said he was especially concerned about dealing with two different FEMA offices because of his experience with the 1997 flood in Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn. Each office seemed to have different rules and different speeds for implementing aid programs, he said. That created a public relations problem for FEMA and frustration among flood victims, who sometimes felt that the aid available to them depended on where they lived.

That perception, merited or not, lingers in the region today. Jessie Swanson, a widow who was rescued from her flooded Moorhead home by airboat and is currently living at a Red Cross shelter, said many on the Minnesota side believe that North Dakota gets more flood aid and gets it faster. "Anybody would tell you that," Swanson said. "I guess we draw our own conclusions."

One genuine disadvantage for Minnesotans is that the threshold for a certain type of federal flood aid takes into account a state's population. Because Minnesota's is far bigger than North Dakota's, Moorhead must have more damage to qualify. Although Moorhead officials are hopeful they'll get the aid they need, the disparity nevertheless illustrates the folly of dividing the area.

FEMA has made dramatic progress since Hurricane Katrina. In Fargo and Moorhead, it's apparent that the agency is reenergized, reorganized and better managed. Yet there's still room for improvement. Going forward, FEMA should reevaluate its approach to the flood-prone Red River Valley and find ways to streamline its processes while cutting down on bureaucracy and confusion. It makes little sense to respond as if to two distinct disasters. When a flood strikes, the region suffers as one. -- Minneapolis Star Tribune

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