N.D. family looks forward to Thanksgiving


Editor’s Note: With winter approaching and housing scarce, North Dakota residents face mountains of cleanup from seven weeks of flooding that led to the worst disaster in state history. In Minot, a city of 40,000, the flood destroyed 4,100 homes. In nearby Burlington, more than a third of the town of 1,100 was under water. The catastrophe left 8,000 to 9,000 people homeless in central North Dakota.

A UMNS Report
By Barbara Dunlap-Berg*

Oct. 3, 2011 | MINOT, N.D. (UMNS)

The Malnaas and their sons reflect on the summer months they spent stripping flood-ruined walls and floors from their home in Minot, N.D. From left are: Patrick, Lester, Taryce and Alex. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

According to Lester Malnaa, his neighborhood looks “about 100 percent” better than it did in July.

That probably means that because piles of flood debris at the curb aren’t as high as they once were, the houses and lawns look a little like they did at the beginning of the summer.

At least from the street.

But if you stop long enough to visit with the Malnaa family, you will discover that the inside of their once-beautiful, multilevel home now consists of wall studs and stripped floors.

“All of the wiring needs to come out,” Lester said of the house, which was built in 2005.

“The water came almost to the roof of the garage. It literally forced the garage doors up.” Some other people in the flood-ravaged city had the opposite problem. They had to hook their garage doors to their vehicles to open their garages.

Lester works for the county highway department; his wife Taryce is a partner in an accounting firm.

“We hauled sand for the National Guard to build dikes,” Lester said. He relates the frantic efforts to protect the city from the floodwaters. “We were pushing water with our bumpers so they could throw sandbags.

“It was the only time I’ve ever driven 50 miles per hour down city streets and police pulled over for me. It was scary, very scary.”

The couple and their two sons, Alex, 17, and Patrick, 11, pause from their constant cleanup tasks to share their story. The fifth member of the Malnaa family — Elizabeth, 19 — was in and out of the hospital all summer because of gallbladder problems. The college sophomore is in her second year of nursing school.

Interrupted anniversary trip

“When this fiasco started,” Lester explained, “Taryce and I were going to Phoenix to celebrate our anniversary.” The couple set out on a motorcycle and got as far as Utah. Then their children called to tell them of the impending evacuation on May 31.

They quickly stored their motorcycle in Utah and flew home.

Before their parents returned to Minot, Alex said, “Elizabeth and I looked at each other and asked, ‘What should we grab?’ We pulled everything downstairs and moved it upstairs.”

Floodwaters from the Mouse River washed this home, next to the Malnaa home, off its foundation in Minot, N.D.

 “It was a lot of stress for the kids,” added Taryce. Five men from the neighborhood helped the teens rip out the downstairs cabinets.

“Initially,” Lester recalled, “they said it wouldn’t be so bad.” Walmart was sold out of plastic tubs, so the Malnaas bought contractor bags to store their things. A friend loaned a truck, and the family began loading belongings. The boys went to camp in Minnesota.

“On Monday (June 20),” Lester continued, “we realized there was nothing we could do (about the flood). By Wednesday, we had everything out.” A second evacuation was ordered, so they moved in with relatives for the duration.

Alex remembered the last morning of camp. “They told us to wake up, pack up and get on the road. By the time we got (close to Minot), there was only one road home.

“On the bus, all of us were ready to come home. But we weren’t really ready because we didn’t want to see what had happened.”

Fish on the boulevard

“The city just crumbled,” Taryce said. “The traffic didn’t run. We couldn’t drink the water. We were advised to get tetanus shots.”

The river crested on June 23. Three weeks later, the Malnaas returned to their house. They found that the Mouse River, just a block and a half away, had gushed into their home — all the way to the third level.

The garage was paved with mud, six inches thick.

“There were fish—northern pike on the boulevard, two or three feet long, and perch,” Lester said.

“It was way worse than I ever expected,” Taryce added. “It was eerie. When we came in that first day, we couldn’t even process what we should do.

“The first day, we did the garage — just our family. It was our day to cope.”

But someone advised her, “You have to learn to take help.” She quickly understood the wisdom of their words.

“Just when you think you can’t do it, God sends someone.”

Scouts from the boys’ troop and other friends, 25 strong, helped the family clean out the upstairs, while 20 of the couple’s colleagues tackled the basement.

“People who cannot be here have helped in other ways,” Taryce said. A friend from the family’s church — Vincent United Methodist — sent a baked casserole, a salad and a fresh-from-the-oven pie.

‘Everybody just helps everybody’

Lester Malnaa says he hopes to be back in his flood-damaged house in Minot, N.D., by Thanksgiving.

And while the whole family pitched in, it was tough.

Patrick told his mom, “It is really hard to watch them take your house apart.”

At first, the family lived in a camper, which was an adjustment in itself. “We went from a 2,900-square-foot house to an 8-by-30-foot camper—five people and two dogs,” Malnaa says.

“We were there 40 days and 40 nights,” Patrick quips, smiling at the biblical analogy.

“We were up at 6:30, out by 6:45 and here by 7.” Now the Malnaas are renting a house from Taryce's parents. It is in an area saved by a secondary dike.

Along with helping their parents in their home, Alex and Patrick have reached out to their neighbors, hauling debris and doing other tasks.

“It’s amazing,” Lester says. “Everybody just helps everybody.”

“Our summer hasn’t been a summer,” Taryce commented. Now she realizes that the “poor people” she has seen on the TV news are her neighbors.

“The community is still hurting. The sore is still oozing. We need hope.”

On Sept. 6, the first day of school, Alex returned to his high school for his senior year. Fortunately, his school is on a hill and was not affected by the floods.

His younger brother is not as lucky.

“I was waiting to go to (Erik) Ramstad Middle School,” Patrick said. That’s where his older sister and brother went. However, the Minot Daily News reported Aug. 10 that Ramstad, with floodwater up to the ceilings a month, resembled a bombed-out wreck with windows knocked out, walls caved in and mud and silt caking the floors.

“Now I’ll be going to school in the city auditorium.”

‘We will be thankful’

“Every person is going through it differently,” Taryce added. “If you are retired and your house is paid for, it’s devastating.

“It’s costing us $30 a week to do laundry, and we still have to pay our mortgage.”

She worries about the people who have marginal income and the older adults suddenly forced to live with their adult children.

Those older adults, Taryce said, “are our volunteers, our charitable givers. We’ve got to find some kind of incentive to help them” recover financially and emotionally.

The family that lived across the street from the Malnaas cared for foster children. They lost everything. One foster daughter from Mexico lost all her letters from home — five years’ worth.

Taryce tells of another neighbor who fears what she will see when — and if — she finally works up the nerve to come home.

“I told her to see our house — to see it can be cleaned up.”

The Malnaas refuse to let the floodwaters drown their dreams. They took a family vote and decided unanimously to repair their beloved home.

“We will have everything done by Thanksgiving,” Lester said. “Then we will be thankful.”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org .