A Simple Assignment

Red River Flood

This was a simple assignment, really.  Drive to Lakeville, examine a car for flood damage and send an estimate to the insurance company.  It was a car that had been transported from East Grand Forks, Minnesota to Lakeville.  It was owned by a married couple with two kids, people evacuated when the Red River crested nearly five feet higher than estimated and swamped the entire city of East Grand Forks.  People who were refugees of the 1997 flood.

I watched the flood news on TV.  The Red River of the North wrested control from human attempts to subdue it.  It called out “This is MY valley, and I will have my way with it this year.”  I had not seen such a flood in all of the time I live in the Red River Valley.  The flood of 1979 was close.

Credit: Eric Hylden, Grand Forks Herald

Credit: Eric Hylden, Grand Forks Herald

In 1979, I was preparing to graduate from high school, and I was living in Crookston. The Red Lake River flows through Crookston towards the Red River in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  When the Red Lake River crested, I helped with piling sandbags and saving peoples’ homes in Crookston.  When that was done, I joined a crew of my fellow high school seniors and drove to Grand Forks to help out over there, where the water was still rising.

We worked through the night in the south side of Grand Forks, piling sandbags in the rain.  We were sent to a location in a wealthy neighborhood, piling sandbags in a protective ring around the home of a rich family.  They didn’t come out to say, “Hi,” or, “Thanks.”   We could see them inside drinking highballs.  I was of legal age and wanted one.  None were offered.

We arrived back in Crookston in time to shower and get ready for school.  We had worked among thousands of volunteers from the University of North Dakota and the Grand Forks Air Force Base.  We felt good that we had saved people’s homes and properties.

After the threat to Grand Forks was fended off, the thanks via the letters section of the Grand Forks Herald were many.  People were grateful, and we appreciated their kind words and their praise.  There was one letter writer, though, who made me particularly upset and angry, and trust me, this was not my larger experience of the people of Grand Forks. From memory:

When the sandbaggers came, there were all kinds of riffraff and especially blacks that came into our yards.  I wish I hadn’t had to put up with that.  I would rather that they had let my house flood than have blacks and long-haired college kids on my property.

That has stuck with me for thirty years, along with the question of whether or not it was written by the homeowners who watched us while they were drinking their highballs.

The 1997 flood was a much worse flood.  In 1997, the sandbagging was not enough to save Grand Forks.  The river rose higher than it had been since 1826.  Downtown Grand Forks was destroyed by explosions and fire that added on to the damage caused by the water.  The Grand Forks Herald published every day thanks to the printing presses of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and each day I saw the devastation so far away.

This time, I wasn’t there to help out.  Hundreds of people were heading north to Grand Forks to help, but I was unable to get away from work.  One of my coworkers, who was in the National Guard, was called up to help in the emergency.  I could only watch on TV and call my parents to see whether the Red River had widened to reach Hallock.  They assured me it hadn’t.  Yet.

So I felt helpless as people were evacuated from Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.  The local TV stations carried stories of cattle stranded in flowing water, unable to reach higher ground.  Some cattle were frozen standing in place as the floodwaters froze at night.


This was a simple assignment.  I worked for an independent auto damage appraisal company, writing estimates for auto repair.  My boss’s guidelines were clear.  If the floodwaters had reached the bottom of the seat, the car would be declared a total loss.  I didn’t need to continue to write the estimate up until the damage reached 70% of the value of the car.  I would only need to note the level of water damage.

The reason is simple.  The electronic control module, the CPU for all of a car’s computer-controlled functions, doesn’t show immediate effects of corrosion.  A flood-damaged car wouldn’t be visibly corroded, but since the ECM can’t be cleaned, the corrosion from floodwater would continue to “eat” at the electronics until they no longer functioned.  A car with such damage can run just fine until it stops.  This could happen on a freeway, while passing a big truck.  People could die.  My company didn’t want to be held liable for the deaths in such a scenario.  The policy was firm.

I contacted the owners of the car and set an appointment for the next day.  I arrived at the house where they were temporarily staying, and met the woman who owned the car.  She was trying to keep a brave face, but I could see the pain in her eyes as she smiled and thanked me for the appraisal.  I told her of my own roots in Grand Forks, and she told me how much it hurt her to have to leave.  I was getting a little verklempt myself.  I took my pictures of the damage and went back to the office.

A major contributor to the flood in 1997 was an early thaw.  Water was standing in pools in the fields when a major blizzard hit the Red River Valley. The pools froze under the snow.  As a second thaw hit, the water couldn’t drain down through the fields.  It flowed directly to the river, leading to a rapid rise.  Since the river runs north, it flows towards a still-frozen section, which causes the water to back up.  The river widens.  Dikes built to protect the towns along the river cause the flow to run faster toward unyielding ice.  The river backs up and widens even more.  The loss of wetlands speeds up the runoff towards the river.  The river widens even more.

Why are people so crazy as to build along a river that can flood so badly?  It’s the soil.  The soil is fantastic farmland.  It is a loamy clay.  Sugarbeets, potatoes, wheat, barley, sunflowers, oats, sorghum, rapeseed, flax, barley.  That’s why people stay in the Red River Valley.  But it has a price, and occasionally it demands repayment in the form of a flood.

The Natiomal Weather Service is looking at conditions in the Red River Valley and is predicting another major flood for 2009.  Fargoans are filling sandbags today, as I write this.  They can’t lay them until snow and ice have melted.  When I was driving through Fargo this last week, I noticed that they still have a great deal of snow on the ground, with ice beneath the snow.  This means possible rapid runoff.

When I see a story like this one in the Grand Forks Herald, I think of my simple assignment twelve years ago. I uploaded a file and the pictures.  Following my boss’s instructions, I had simply noted “Total Loss. Water above the bottom of the seat.  No further estimate required per guidelines.”

The adjuster, my client, called and asked for the detailed estimate.  I argued with him and explained the policy.  He wanted an estimate that showed 70% damage.  I told him it wasn’t necessary. My boss backed me up, and the adjuster relented and agreed that the car should be settled as a total loss.  Then I did something that is technically unethical, but the right thing to do.  I called the owners of the vehicle and told them how to negotiate for the maximum settlement of a total loss for their vehicle.

I did it because the adjuster was a jerk to me.  I did it because I had been unable to go to Grand Forks to help sandbag.  I did it because the highball drinkers and the letter writer who hated that blacks and long-haired college students had been in his yard are anomalies in Grand Forks.  I sincerely hope that Grand Forks, and indeed all of the Red River Valley from Wahpeton to Winnipeg, fare well and avoid a major flood in 2009.

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5 Responses to “A Simple Assignment”

  1. March 23rd, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    khan says:

    I would rather that they had let my house flood than have blacks and long-haired college kids on my property.
    Beyond imagining.

  2. March 23rd, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I’ve never understood racism. and that made me feel terrible. Most of the blacks were airmen from the Grand Forks Air Base who were volunteering, not on orders from their superiors. I talked to one guy from Alabama and he was about to go on leave to go home, but rescheduled so he could stay longer to help out.

    But, like I said, other than that letter and the people with the drinks, everyone was very appreciative of what we were doing.

  3. March 20th, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    feralboy12 says:

    I would rather that they had let my house flood than have blacks and long-haired college kids on my property

    Is it too late to go back and waterboard the bastard?

  4. March 20th, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    tybee says:

    so exactly how does one “negotiate for the maximum settlement of a total loss for their vehicle” ?

    i live in a coastal flood plain and may, someday, need to know how that is accomplished. 🙂

  5. March 21st, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    tybee –

    Make sure that you get an accurate independent value of the retail price of your car, separate from what is printed in the Kelley Blue Book. Contact three used car dealers, explain that you are getting an insurance valuation, and then describe (accurately) the condition and features of the car. Then use that in negotiations with the total loss adjuster in case they try to lowball you.

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