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ND residents treading water

In the past decade, 500 homes have been lost to the ever-rising Devils Lake.

BY MARCIA DAVIS | DEVILS LAKE, ND | March 14, 2003

"A large ugly monster came out of the water, his saucer-like eyes flashed a copper fire. . . They tried to get away but the demon was too powerful. One by one he swallowed everyone in sight. . ."

The chilling words of this Native American legend passed down through the generations of The Spirit Lake Nation, a Sioux tribal settlement near Devils Lake, ND, have -- for over a decade -- proven more fact than myth for the 5,500 tribal members and 10,000 residents of the surrounding lakeside communities.

The phenomenal closed basin Devils Lake floods like no other body of water on the continent.

The long-term misery of persistent flooding, fleeing, relocating, rebuilding and repeating the cycle watermarks the faces of young and old. Transitional housing from the floods of 1997 have become permanent housing for many. The entire community of Churchs Ferry disappeared in mitigation buyouts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Since the spring of 1993, approximately 120,000 acres of land have been flooded, according to Dave Loss, U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager for the Devils Lake Outlet Study. "We've lost about 500 homes around the lake and spent about $350 million removing homes and relocating them, raising roads and railroads, general flood fighting and dealing with flooding conditions," he said.

The city of Minnewaukan was seven miles away from Devils Lake in 1993, Loss said, but now the flooding is at their doorstep. "The lake is four times as large as it was in '93," he said.

If the current wet cycle continues in a worse case scenario, according to published projections, the area could see the loss of 58,000 acres of land, the need to relocate an additional 200 homes and businesses and 1,000 structures; the destruction of 1.6 million trees or 5,800 acres of forest, a national refuge and nesting habitat, and the dissolve of the transportation infrastructure.

According to the studies, if Devils Lake should reach its natural outlet level, water would surge down the Sheyenne River at a rate of as much as 12,500 cubic feet per second blasting the river with more than 20 times its capacity.

Federal and state officials can't agree on the price tag or method of reining in the Devils Lake "monster," but do concur that whatever the construction involved in restraining or diverting the beast from its perpetual flood state, such a project won't be completed for at least two years.

A levee surrounds the city of Devils Lake. A road dike at the southern side of the lake partially protects the sprawling Spirit Lake Indian reservation. The tribal lands offer lucrative prey for the "monster," rich farmland for winter wheat, corn, alfalfa, flax, beans, sugar beets, soybeans and sunflowers; rolling pastureland; acres of lush national park; a golf course, marina and ski area within easy reach of ever-rising waters.

Though the temperature outside registers a frigid minus 26, the debates are passionate enough to spark an early thaw.

The Spirit Lake Tribal Council has gone on record in opposition of an outlet, vying for a more "natural" solution, according to tribal councilman Mark Lufkins. The council holds exclusive jurisdiction over the tribal lands.

Officials of neighboring Minnesota and Canada express concern over the environmental affects of the transfer of aquatic life and dissolved solids from Devils Lake to their waterways as a result of proposed outlets being considered.

To address this concern, after completing their own environmental impact study, federal officials have added costs to their plan as they added a sand filter.

State officials say they consider the bio-transfer issue a mute point and the added costs out of sight.

Conservationists warn of the "unintended consequences" of diverting waters.

Meanwhile residents and disaster response groups -- reeling from the rigors of rescue and recovery under nine Presidential disaster declarations in eight years -- uneasily tread water and watch for the lake "monster" to rear its ugly head once more. The rise and fall of the economy threatens the stability of the relief agencies as mightily as the changing waters worry its victims.

In a move to channel it all, the state water commission voted March 5, to wave aside the high-dollar luxury liner proposed by the U. S. Corp of Engineers -- a slow boat by any person's stopwatch -- and follow their own course out of the flooding at a less expensive fare. Ticket for the corps ride tops out at about $200 million, of which the state of North Dakota would be responsible for $73 million. The state's proposed outlet has been estimated at $25 million.

Still, the state's construction could yet pose a stepping stone toward the Corps project, according to Don Canton spokesperson for North Dakota Governor John Hoeven.

"We don't have to commit to the federal outlet until fall. We plan to go ahead with our own outlet," he said. Canton said since Congress would have to appropriate sufficient funding for the Corps' construction, he feels like it would be a hard sell. Should that approval take place, he said, the project could be handed back to the feds, but Canton added that with a switch in midstream from state to Corps projects, the state would expect a funding credit for the portion of construction they initiated.

Bruce Engelhardt, head of the investigation section of the state water commission, referred to the state's plan as a "temporary outlet." He said the state outlet would reduce the rate of rise, but the corps' project would actually draw the lake down.

Riding out the waves of crises and controversy, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the faith communities--like bright bobbing corks--are a study in tenacity around Devils Lake.

"Without FEMA, the Federal Department of Transportation and the Corps of Engineers, we wouldn't have a community," according to Ramsey County Emergency Manager Tim Heisler. "We would have lost our infrastructure, a third of the city would be flooded, and transportation would be completely gone," he said.

National faith-based agencies have stepped in and out with the rise and fall of the flood water through the years, partnered and handed the lifeline down to local charities and churches as needs prescribed. Providing transportation, food, shelter, replacing soggy carpets, and buckling walls gave way to tending to long-term emotional affects: depression and rising suicide rates, drug use and desperation of stressed out children and disparaged adults.

The Resource Agencies Faith Team or RAFT, a team-up of Lutheran Disaster Relief, United Methodist Committee on Relief, United Church of Christ, Catholic Social Services, Second Harvest, the Grain Train, and The Salvation Army -- made way for the Lutheran Rural Response.

Last summer, with funding tight, LRR become Rural Response Coalition, comprised of the Presbyterian Church USA, Presbytery of the Northern Plains; The United Methodist Church, Dakotas Conference; Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota, Roman Catholic Diocese of Fargo, Roman Catholic Diocese of Bismarck, Catholic Family Service, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Eastern and Western Synods; and Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.

RRC Director Bonnie Turner said for the coalition that services the entire state, the problems stem from a cup of water that seems always too full or too empty. Some parts of the state are in drought as other areas are flooding or on the verge of flooding.

Turner has been a relief provider for the long haul.

"In 1997 and 1998, we worked a lot on the reservation with the Spirit Lake Nation; did case management and were able to assist them with bills, assessing needs and connecting them with resources, and assisting financially with rebuilding," she said.

In 1999, she said LRR, with a staff of 39, brought in a lot of specialized programs like Neighbor-to-Neighbor, helping residents learn to reach out, encourage, assist and mentor each other. "We did programs for couples, men's and women's retreats and programs for children. When the dollars became fewer, that's when the various denominations came forward to help."

Today, as the funding dollars dwindle and with a staff of one, she said RRC maintains a Powerhouse Potential program to bring members of the community together to find ways not just to cope, but to dream.

Saving the A & P provides grocery story vouchers to rural families in need and a subsidy to small grocery stores. "A $50 voucher is not going to save a farm family and $500 is not going to save a small grocery store, but it conveys such a strong message to rural people that the church cares and understands what they are going through," Turner said.

Bread of Hope assists small food cupboards across the state and supports the LSS Great Plains food bank, Second Harvest, and has opened four new food bank programs in the state, Turner said.

Another veteran responder -- Sharon Georgeson, Christian education director for Bdecan Presbyterian Church, a congregation of Sioux in the Woodlake area of the reservation. Georgeson said she remembers years back when Church World Service sent 10 boxes of health aid items to the church for distribution. She remembers when Presbyterian Disaster Response sent blankets and layettes, bolts of towels, clothing and curtains.

Georgeson said last summer was the first summer since 1997 the Woodlake residents of the reservation could drive the main highway, a 15-minute drive between the reservation and Devils Lake. For four years after the highway was washed away, the only way the Sioux in that area could get to town was drive completely around the lake, more than 80 miles one way. "Many had to rent a car, others gave food money for gasoline," she said.

Then after the road was replaced, one day last November her niece was killed while making the drive. "Her car slid on the icy road and hit the big rocks that form the levee around the town. It broke her neck." Georgeson said.

"Now we are crawling with rodents and snakes in the summer. We've had a death from the Hantavirus," she said. But the most pressing need, according to Georgeson, is for the 150 families on the reservation who were displaced four years ago. "Last year the tribe got 50 homes moved down for them from Grand Forks Air Force Base, but no one is able to move into the homes yet. The families have to dig their own wells and make all the repairs themselves. Each well is like $5,000 a piece," she said, "and none of them can do that."


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