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Public banks could help after a disaster such as superstorm Sandy

In April 1997, a public bank was able to respond to a massive flood in Grand Forks, N.D., in ways that privately owned banks could not or, perhaps, would not. Could public banks help in other disasters, such as superstorm Sandy?

By Kelly McCartneyShareable / November 22, 2012

Residents of Grand Forks, N.D., carry their pet dog to safety in the shovel of a frontloader April 20, 1997. The more than 50,000 residents of the city were forced to evacuate as the Red River reached 25 feet above flood level. A public bank, owned by citizens, was a key player in the city's recovery.

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The Public Banking Institute blog cites a powerful example of how a public bank can help a city bounce back from a devastating natural disaster. As Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts unfold, there's a lesson from history about the role of strong local financial institutions in increasing urban resilience.

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In April of 1997, Grand Forks, North Dakota, was hit by record flooding and major fires that put the city's future in jeopardy. One of the first economic responders was the Bank of North Dakota (BND), currently the only public bank in the United States

What's a public bank, you ask? Public banks are owned by citizens through their government. They have a public interest mission, are dedicated to funding local development, and plow profits back into the state treasury to fund social programs and cover deficits. Rather than competing with private banks, BND partners with them to meet the needs of North Dakotans. BND is one reason North Dakota has low unemployment and runs budget surpluses while most states are deeply in the red.

RELATED: 4 smart ways to rebuild after superstorm Sandy

As a public bank, BND was able to respond to the '97 flood in ways that a privately owned bank could not or, perhaps, would not. While Sandy's wrath cost dozens of lives and an estimated $60 billion, Grand Forks' suffered $3.5 billion in losses – a lot of damage for a town of 50,000, which saw flood waters inundate a staggering 75 percent of area homes. Fortunately, no one died.

Right after the flood, the Bank of North Dakota got to work, established a disaster relief loan fund, set aside $5 million to assist flood victims, and set up additional credit lines of around $70 million:

  •  $15 million for the North Dakota Division of Emergency Management
  •  $10 million for the North Dakota National Guard
  •  $25 million for the City of Grand Forks
  •  $12 million for the University of North Dakota, located in Grand Forks
  •  $7 million allocated to raise the height of a dike at Devil's Lake, about 90 miles west of Grand Forks

Other financial institutions hurried to catch up and match the offer, as BND worked with the Department of Education, the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration, and other federal and state agencies to provide student and home loan relief to flood victims. Due to quick recovery efforts, Grand Forks lost only 3 percent of its population during recovery, while similarly devastated East Grand Forks, across the river in Minnesota, a state without a public bank, lost 17 percent.

RELATED: Five of the costliest US river floods

That's what is possible with a public bank: people come first. But it's not all altruism. As a local financial institution, The Bank of North Dakota's future was partly tied to a healthy recovery.

I wish New York and New Jersey speedy recoveries. If you live there, I encourage you to start or get behind a public bank initiative to shore up local resilience. Twenty states, including New York, have initiatives under way to create public banks. The Public Banking Institute has a guide to local initiatives here

In the mean time, here are 10 ways you can help the recovery effort.

This article originally appeared at Shareable.net, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

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