Push for permits helps responders in North Dakota oil patch

Officials in North Dakota say new regulations requiring zoning may have helped first-responders after a tornado hit the area in May.
By JAMES MacPHERSON, Associated Press Modified: June 6, 2014 at 9:42 pm •  Published: June 7, 2014

— When workers began spilling into western North Dakota for high-paying oil jobs and nowhere to live, they set their eyes on the unregulated prairie of the state’s largest oil-producing county — quickly turning it into a mass of trailer parks and scattered RVs.

Crew camps were set up haphazardly along unnamed roads across McKenzie County thanks to its lack of zoning rules for housing. Thousands of people had no address.

“Before, we just had ‘hillbilly addressing,’” said Jerry Samuelson, the county’s emergency manager. “‘Go down to a farmer’s mailbox and turn right.’ That was when everybody knew everybody.”

But Samuelson and other local officials saw a big problem: How do they keep track of everyone? The population was booming so fast that no one knew how many people were in McKenzie County, so despite opposition from longtime residents, local officials pushed through ordinances.

New rules worked

Those rules are now being credited in part in helping emergency workers respond when a workers camp was hit by only the 14th tornado to sweep through the county in 65 years. The Memorial Day storm injured nine people and destroyed 15 trailers, but no one was killed, and emergency crews knew the camp’s location.

The new rules require that “man camps,” temporary housing complexes for oilfield workers, and RV parks obtain permits and addresses, enabling 911 dispatchers to pinpoint where people are temporarily living. Officials also decided not to kick people off land for not having a permit, but rather work to get them the right paperwork.