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City braces for Mother Nature's next blow

Associated Press

GRANITE FALLS, Minn. -- Few towns have the distinction that Mother Nature has visited upon Granite Falls: two floods and one tornado within five years. Now, the southwestern Minnesota city of about 3,000 is preparing for the next potential disaster along the Minnesota River.

City leaders don't talk about "if" it'll happen. They talk about "when."

Much of downtown to fall

Since the biggest flood, in 1997, the city has acquired 64 housing units. It is preparing to wipe out about a quarter of the downtown commercial area, including City Hall. It is seeking to better protect or replace riverside installations such as its public works building.

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"I don't know that any other town has been through what we've been through in that compact amount of time," from 1997 to 2001, said Mayor Dave Smiglewski.

In 1997, the Minnesota River rose to more than 11 feet above flood stage, about a foot below the main floor of City Hall. The water, just above freezing, barreled through town at about 15 miles an hour.

Volunteers filled about 800,000 sandbags. Among homes in the three blocks south of the business district, the sandbag wall "stretched over decks, under decks and around storage buildings," City Manager Bill Lavin said.

A tornado in 2000 hit mostly the other end of town, killing one person, damaging or destroying 340 houses and causing $25 million in losses.

In 2001, the city was better organized for the flood that came; the water was lower and only about 600,000 sandbags were needed.

Property buyouts

Tornadoes can't be predicted, but floods can, so Granite Falls and other cities have been seeking to remove flood-prone properties. There's been federal aid, but "how often could we expect them to come back?" Lavin said. And "sooner or later you're going to run out of volunteers."

At least a half-dozen other Minnesota communities, including East Grand Forks, Montevideo and Breckenridge, have participated in buyouts. Granite Falls acquired apartment units after the 1997 flood and, more recently, 36 houses, about half of them resold to be moved away.

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Across the river from downtown, Virginia Putnam can look out on flood-prone Minnesota Avenue, site of her former home and now deserted except for two houses still waiting to be moved or demolished.

The house where she and her late husband, Jim, raised their children and lived for about 50 years was bought by the city and torn down. Putnam bought a neighbor's house, moved it uphill past the 100-year flood level and had it turned around for a better view of the river and the eagles that visit it.

"Both of us wanted a house on the river. We wanted to see the water," she said. Although moving her new house, built in 1992, and bringing it up to code "cost more than I anticipated ... the view is just wonderful."

Businesses on the move

Across the river, Bob Ladner became the first to move a business, Ladner's True Value Hardware. The lower level of his riverside building, where he sold lawn and garden equipment, was under 6 feet of water in 1997, Ladner said.

With tax-increment financing, he acquired a city-owned lot and built a new, more efficient store down the main street for about $1.2 million, he said. It opened in November.

State Farm insurance agent Mark Henderson moved into the back of a beauty shop during the 1997 flood, when water came within inches of his office floor. Soon, he'll move again, but he hopes to stay downtown.

The city hasn't forced anybody to sell, and Henderson said it has tried to treat property owners fairly. "I think, if there's any dissatisfaction, it's that these things tend to take time," he said. "It's eight, going on nine years, since the first flood, and we're still here."

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And there's still a lot to do.

The city has gotten more than $10 million in state and federal money, is spending that down and has about $13 million more in needs, Lavin said.

Walls and levees

Some flood walls will be built downtown this year. Some levees will need strengthening, and the city should build a new water treatment plant, Lavin said.

Also, the city is offering $32,000 to anyone who will move the 1878 Julian A. Weaver House from Putnam's old neighborhood. The house is considered to be one of the best examples of residential architecture from that era remaining in the western part of the state and was listed last year as one of Minnesota's 10 most endangered historic sites.

City officials hope to complete downtown demolition, including moving City Hall, by 2008.

"I think there's a general understanding," Ladner said, "that this is probably the last best opportunity for a small community like Granite Falls to revitalize its main business center."

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