Just when one region of North Dakota stabilizes for a short while, another floods. Cleanup in one community leaves another to
fend for its traumatic aftermath. And experts only see the trend continuing. With saturated grounds from record rains and snow
in the last seven years, most of the state remains on alert for flooding and flood-related disasters year 'round.
"We can't see an end to it," said Ramsey County Commissioner Joe Belford. "Just as we begin to see the end of the cleanup after
the last flooding this past summer, we have to make plans for a hard snow this winter and the melting in the spring."
Belford lives and works in the Devils Lake region, which has been experiencing a rising water level since 1993. In July, the lake
rose an additional two and a half feet to set another record flood level. Devils Lake, which is about 90 miles west of Grand
Forks, is a closed water basin.
In 1993, it measured 3,800 square miles. The lake now covers 120,000 square miles and has risen 24 feet, covering roads, homes,
and whole communities. "It eats up houses and businesses as it grows," says Bob Harmes, legal counsel for Gov. Ed Schafer. "We
can't protect the communities that are on the edge of the lake anymore. "
This year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought out 300 homes and businesses, he said. Emergency response
teams are always preparing for the next wave of rising water. In July a community college was used for temporary shelter, but
since households have enough warning to move, most prepare in advance for the crisis. The United Methodists helped with
initial priorities of making living areas safe and secure. Teams of volunteers and community members removed sheet rock,
moldy carpets, and sludge from residential areas.
Then in September, interfaith recovery teams moved east across the state to Fargo and Grand Forks, which saw eight inches of
rain in two hours, resulting in the flooding of hundreds of homes, especially basements and garden apartments. Debbie
Graham, program assistant with Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), said new immigrants have been in need of translating
assistance in addition to the usual home furnishings, cars, and clothing typically lost in a fast flood.
"We've handled about 150 cases so far," Graham said. "And yes, we have one person watching in Devils Lake now and we know
we'll probably be back full swing there in the spring."
The state government knows its citizens are relying on them to stop the barrage of disasters. "The biggest problem facing
people now is that they need some confidence that a solution is being implemented," Harmes said. Those solutions are threefold
now, he said. They include relocating infrastructure, managing the water basin with more dikes and -- the most controversial --
releasing water to other sources, such as the Cheyenne River.
While most families take advantage of the buyouts or clean up and repair their homes with relatively few problems, the
aftermath of each crisis lingers, Harmes said, overflowing to the next disaster.
Families in Fargo and Devils Lake who were still recovering from a major 1997 flood, traumatized again this year, have little
hope that conditions will improve much over the next decade, according to meteorologists.
Some families have had to move twice in three years, Commissioner Belford said. While continuing to respond to the needs of
folks caught in the September storm, staff and volunteers at LDR agree that long-term mental health recovery is one of the
greatest needs in the state. "We help people work through the maze of government programs immediately following the
flooding in the various regions, but here (in North Dakota) we see a lot more subtle, complicated needs," said Graham. "People
might believe that their neighbors are coping very well, so they think that they should be too.
"In the Devils Lake region, LDR teamed with other faith-based leaders from United Methodist Committee on Relief, United
Church of Christ, Catholic Social Services, Second Harvest, the Grain Train, and The Salvation Army to form the Resource
Agencies Faith Team, or RAFT. In addition to serving immediate needs of homeowners and renters, RAFT also works with the
Agriculture Department to pair mental health professionals with agriculture mediators, so that farm families can learn about
their options for assistance.
The Devils Lake area is currently in a "waiting period," so response efforts are concentrated further east to assist those affected
in the Fargo area. A free counseling hotline covering nearly 38 disaster-declared counties in North Dakota and four counties in
Minnesota affected by the same floods, is run by the Lutherans to serve the mental health needs that professionals know
continue to exist in both Devils Lake and Fargo/Grand Forks.
Unfortunately, Graham said, the counseling services have been underutilized. Teams are meeting now to define additional
outreach programs for the free service, which they hope to implement in January, she said. Another program that was
underutilized but effective for the 19 who did attend, was Camp Noah, a weeklong day camp for elementary school-aged
children which the Methodists and Lutherans ran in August. The facility had room for 50 children.
Geared to help children cope with the aftermath of floods, Camp Noah helps children identify with Noah and the Ark. "Often
while the parents are dealing with all the material effects of the flood and their own anguish, the children are left out," Graham
said. "The camp, with games and stories, elevates the kids, makes them feel more empowered."
While government officials work on the solutions that can help residents to feel a sense of safety and security, flood survivors
simply want to get over the last crisis. "No one's talking about the fears of the future," Graham said.
"Absolutely, the mental trauma is the hardest to get over and the longest lasting," said Commissioner Belford, who has his
convenience store up and running with help from a Small Business Administration loan. "It looks like there may be another 93
or so homes in the way of the flooding we are expecting next spring. We ask everyone to just be aware that it's coming and be
prepared to respond."
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