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As North Dakota winter begins, temporary housing not ready

By David Bailey

(Reuters) - Temperatures have dropped to well below freezing and the snow is falling around Minot, North Dakota, where many residents displaced by a massive summer flood still await federal temporary housing.

A deadline of finishing the housing by early November has passed and still about a quarter of the 2,300 temporary units remain to be completed, officials said.

About 5,000 homes in and around Minot were swamped when the Souris River rolled over its banks in June and reached up to a dozen feet deep in spots, adding to an already critical housing shortage created by oil-boom fueled demand.

The thousands of residents driven from their homes have been staying with relatives, friends, neighbors, in campers and hotels across the region.

The booming economy, which has been stoked by oil drilling in the area, also lured some construction workers away from the emergency housing drive, increasing the cost and hampering efforts, officials said.

"They would come up here to work, the oil fields would pay them ... more per hour and they would be gone the next day," said Lieutenant Colonel Kendall Bergmann, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul District.

"That was kind of frustrating for our contractors that came from outside the area," he said.

About 11,000 Minot residents -- or roughly one-quarter of the city's population -- were forced out of their homes in June because of flooding on the Souris, or Mouse River.

Owners have left many flood-damaged houses untouched while they wait to see where defenses will be placed, extended or raised. Planning for flood protections along the Souris River across its length in North Dakota is in a preliminary stage.

Some 380 houses in Minot and another 80 outside the city would be razed to strengthen flood protections under a revised plan released November 30. That would be about 100 fewer Minot homes than under an initial draft in early November.

In the meantime, federal officials have planned to place about 1,200 temporary housing units in newly constructed group sites or at existing mobile home parks in and around Minot.

As of November 30, federal officials had nearly 670 units sites occupied, about 55 percent of the total plan. Another 240 units were on site and being finished.

More than 1,000 temporary housing units have been placed on private property. In a sign of some progress, 68 families have returned to homes after living in temporary housing units on their property, federal officials said.

"People are not overly frustrated. They are glad to get into the houses and FEMA is working with them on getting their pipes warm so they don't freeze," Bergmann said.

The Corps on Wednesday finished preparing the last of 850 spaces for the group sites where the temporary homes are placed by contractors led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The North Dakota climate proved to be the biggest obstacle to completing the project, Bergmann said.

Water, sewer and electrical connections can be run over the ground in warmer climates, allowing temporary sites to be set up quickly. Not so in North Dakota where residents have been most concerned with making sure the temporary housing has enough insulation to keep water and sewer lines from freezing.

FEMA said it has 40 crews working to add vestibules to the units and had completed 63 through Wednesday. It also is responsible for insulation around the base of the units and protecting the pipes and other connections against freezing.

The federal government pays for utility costs at the group and mobile home sites while residents pay for the costs if they are staying in temporary housing on their private property.

(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Greg McCune)

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