Early this morning, Bluestem reported on the Realigning Sentencing and the Appleton Prison Town Hall on Tuesday in Minnesota DFL state representative Raymond Dehn's district in Minneapolis. The District's Demographics are available via Dehn's official website.
One of the rural Republicans who is part of the town hall is former Browns Valley Mayor and current Minnesota House District 12A state representative Jeff Backer. Minnesota's western boundary waters, from whence both the Minnesota River and the Red River of the North spring, forms his district's western edge. The District Demographics contrast with those in Minneapolis.
Why do we believe it's a good thing for the country mouse to visit the big city and listen to Dehn's constituents?
The answer is rooted in statements Backer made while Mayor of Browns Valley in 2007, when the city was struck by a flood in those headwaters in the spring and heavy rain in early June. Shane Mercer of the Grand Forks Herald reported in Browns Valley recovering:
BROWNS VALLEY, Minn. - Residents of this western Minnesota town were reminded over the weekend of the brutal flooding that buried a large chunk of the community in March.
Heavy rains forced water over a road on the west side of Browns Valley on Saturday. The waters receded, but were back across the road on Monday.
Mayor Jeff Backer said Monday afternoon he was not aware of any damage to homes, and the areas hardest hit by flooding in March were not affected.
It's not as if residents needed the reminder. Some things are hard to forget. When ice jams forced the Little Minnesota River from its banks and into neighborhoods in March, more than 60 homes in the town of about 650 sustained severe or moderate damage. Backer estimated flood damage to the city at $4 million to $5 million. . . .
Mayor Backer compared his town's misery to that of New Orleans, which had been hit by Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005. Mercer reports:
"In my opinion New Orleans would not be in the position that they are in if they had the same people that we have here in Browns Valley," he said, alluding to post-Katrina issues in the Crescent City. "The mentality of the people (in Browns Valley) is, 'What can we do to help?' " ...
In a September 2007 KELOLAND (Sioux Falls television station) report, Relief Money Trickles Into Browns Valley, Backer repeated that notion:
While more than 50 homes were damaged by the floodwater, most everyone has remained in Browns Valley, but still, four families are living in FEMA trailers, Seven homes have been destroyed and as many as eight more could be condemned. And some homes are being rebuilt on higher ground. All of the progress being made before any disaster relief money trickled into town.
Mayor Jeff Backer says, "But when you're the person who is living in a travel home or still living with friends, families and relatives, it seems slow. Cause that's seven months since the flood did happen."
Just last week, the first state aid dollars made their way to Browns Valley, $500-thousand of the $2-million state lawmakers approved in July. Now the mayor of the town is ready to move forward, but knows there are still months and years of rebuilding ahead for the community.
Backer says, "If New Orleans had the people we have here, some of the challenges they're facing they wouldn't be facing because the people here have rolled up their sleeves, took the resources they had and did what they could."
Later that fall, Backer reached for the contrast again, this time in talking to the Associated Press via Minnesota Public Radio's Browns Valley residents still picking up pieces from spring flood:
As an example of how property values can affect flood relief, Browns Valley Mayor Jeff Backer Jr. said 62 homes were touched by the flood, and 17 were severely damaged. The value of the those homes in this small town in far western Minnesota ranged from $20,000 to $35,000. The city is buying out seven of them. . . .
Backer, whose basement was flooded, said the percentage of houses in his town affected by flooding was equal to those damaged in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.
"Bill and Donna Spotts lost a home. Don Miller lost a home," Backer said, pointing to two of his neighbors. "What makes them different from someone losing a home in New Orleans? Nothing."
The financial thresholds for federal assistance vary by county, and in Browns Valley the damage to public infrastructure alone had to be $6 million, [ spokeswoman for the Minnesota division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Kris] Eide said. The formula changes every year based on population and the consumer price index, she said.
While Backer rightly felt great pain for Browns Valley, his math was a bit off. While 60 homes out of 650 in Browns Valley (just under 10%) were damaged, CNN notes in its 2015 Hurricane Katrina Statistics Fast Facts:
80% of the city flooded after levees failed. . . .
70% of New Orleans' occupied housing, 134,000 units, was damaged in the storm.
That's a far, far greater percentage of the housing in New Orleans than the housing in Browns Valley that was destroyed by the cities' respective natural disasters. It's likely more explanatory of why the City of New Orleans lost so much of its population shortly after what FEMA called "the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history" than not having "the same people that we have here in Browns Valley."
We're hoping that the Justice4All and TakeAction organizers, along with the good citizens of North Minneapolis, can open Representative Backer's eyes and heart about the structural underpinnings of success and failure in America--and the special place that criminal justice and incarceration have in this story.
Images: A Minneapolis Town Hall Poster (banner); Where Browns Valley is at (map).
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