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Mapping the Monster

Mapping a Monster

The relentless advance of Devils Lake on the small North Dakota town of Minnewaukan has been like watching a science fiction movie in slow motion.

The lake is the monster that won’t stop growing, devouring and destroying everything in its path.  The small town of about 300, once eight miles away from the lake’s western shore, is now threatened by rising water that’s literally on the doorstep.

Christina (Tina) Cummings, a graduate student in UND’s Department of Geography, has spent the past two years writing her master’s thesis on the flooding threat Devils Lake poses to Minnewaukan.  When completed, her work will become part of the Devils Lake risk assessment study being put together by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in collaboration with other federal, state and local agencies.

“The ultimate goal is to produce a series of maps to assist local officials in the decision-making process with the rising lake levels,” explained Cummings, a Penn State graduate who hails from Lorton, Va.  “My maps show the locations of buildings that will be submerged or damaged and the estimated building damage loss.”

Her thesis provides the most detailed, accurate and up-to-date picture of what could happen to Minnewaukan if Devils Lake continues to rise.  In one-foot increments, Cummings’ maps provide local officials with a clear view of the future if the lake goes from its current level of 1,452 feet above sea level to 1,460 feet.

“I wanted my thesis to have some real-life application,” Cummings said.  “I wanted it to not just be used as a thesis, but to help local officials plan.  I think hazard mitigation and the expansion of Devils Lake are fascinating topics.”

According to the North Dakota State Water Commission, Devils Lake has risen nearly 29 feet since 1993.  In April 2010, the lake covered 277 square miles, increasing in area by four times and volume by six times over the past seven years.  Nobody knows when or if the lake will stop rising, but it is known that when the lake’s elevation reaches 1,458 feet, it will spill over into the Tolna Coulee and then drain into the Sheyenne River and the Red River.

Even if Devils Lake begins to drain naturally, its level at Minnewaukan could temporarily reach 1,460 feet on the western side during the spring.

“We have to figure out the next step,” said Ellen Huffman, Benson County tax assessor, who worked closely with Cummings on the project.  “We need all the help we can get here as far as trying to figure things out because it’s just overwhelming.”

Cummings’ primary goal is to help the townspeople make important decisions about their future.  Should the town or parts of it be relocated?  How much can realistically be saved from flooding?  Should a property owner take a FEMA buyout if available?

“This information should be very helpful for city officials to make decisions,” Cummings said.  “It’s very technical, but when you relay the information to the public, this is what they’re interested in.  How does it affect me?  How does it affect my house?  What does this mean for the town of Minnewaukan?”

Cummings spent hours in the county courthouse in Minnewaukan, scanning more than 1,200 pages of tax records on the town’s 300 buildings.  This enabled her to digitize figures on the assessed value of each taxable structure in the town and import them into a database program.

To make her maps as accurate as possible, Cummings relied on LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data supplied by FEMA.  LIDAR uses an aircraft-mounted laser and global positioning system (GPS) to map the elevations of the Devils Lake Basin to within inches.

“For flat areas, the error associated with the standard digital elevation model is so big that it gives you somewhat vague results,” explained Paul Todhunter, a UND geography professor who advises Cummings.  “LIDAR is the thing you really need to use for these very flat landscapes.”

To create the maps and the tables outlining the increased potential for damage to buildings, Cummings used a computer model developed by FEMA called HAZUS-MH (Hazards U.S.-Multi-Hazard).  Originally developed to assess the potential economic and social damage of earthquakes, it has since been adapted to study flooding associated with rivers and hurricanes.  It’s seldom been used to model flooding associated with lakes, however.

“This is a unique application of HAZUS as far as the level of detail, which greatly increases the accuracy of the model,” said Jesse Rozelle, risk analysis and geographic information systems (GIS) coordinator for FEMA Region VIII in Denver.

Cummings received FEMA training on the HAZUS software at the Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Md.  She is one of only 50 people in the United States with advanced HAZUS certification.

“Tina took a lot of initiative to go to the Emergency Management Institute,” Rozelle said.  “She did a lot of that on her own.  I chose to provide her with additional advanced training.”

Todhunter said the unique research Cummings has done, combined with the training she’s received, will give her an advantage in today’s tight job market.

“It’s a nice example of how students who are mature and creative can carve a little niche for themselves,” he noted.

It also demonstrates what can be accomplished with research collaborations.

“This project is really a good example of a partnership between a university and a federal agency because we’re working together on the project,” Cummings noted.  “I gave them a good piece of information, and they gave me a good piece of information.

“Together, we could produce the project,” she continued.  “If they didn’t help me and I didn’t help them, this project wouldn’t be possible.”

The real beneficiaries of Cummings’ efforts are the residents of Minnewaukan and the community leaders who must make the difficult decisions ahead.

“The more information we have, the better decisions we can make.  We can be proactive instead of reactive,” Huffman said.

Rozelle said that helping communities plan for and deal with natural disasters is one of FEMA’s primary goals.

“Community officials want to make decisions based on best available data,” he said.  “That’s what we’ve been able to help Minnewaukan do, thanks to Tina’s work.”

Mapping a Monster

ABOVE: Tina Cummings (seated) worked closely with local tax officials Ellen Huffman and Randy Thompson to assemble the data for generating the maps. RIGHT: An aerial photograph depicts lake waters impacting Minnewaukan in the spring of 2010. These maps generated by Cummings depict the impact on the community if Devils Lake rises to 1,454, 1,457 and 1,460 feet, respectively. The purple circles represent the relative dollar value of structures affected, from small for lower value to large for high value.

Mapping a Monster

Mapping a Monster

Mapping a Monster

Mapping a Monster

Patrick C. Miller | Staff Writer