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North Dakotans 'afraid to hope'

BY SUSAN KIM | NORTH DAKOTA | July 14, 1999

Summer floods are piling more frustration

onto people who feel like a letup will never come. Residents of North

Dakota are mired in an ongoing farm crisis, haunted by memories of past

disaster, and wondering if the nation has forgotten them.

But response organizations are redefining their roles and brainstorming new

ideas to energize disaster survivors -- and themselves.

"We've been hammered away at for so many years," said Sheryl Rude, a

long-time resident of Devils Lake. The lake, which has been slowly

overflowing for seven years, overtaking communities and farmlands, is

rising even faster because of increased rain. "It's hard to even ask for

help. Because that means you have to hope again. And to hope again is to be

able to get hurt again."

"I know a farmer in Devils Lake whose land is surrounded by water. He's got

30 cattle, and the milk truck can't get on their land."

Farmers are particularly vulnerable, since wet conditions have delayed

plantings, caused crop disease, and exacerbated insect problems, while high

winds and storms have wiped out nearly 40,000 more acres. More than 3.2

million acres of farmland -- 16 percent of the total in the state -- remain

unplanted because of wet conditions. So many farmers are searching for

other work just to put food on their own table.

There has been flash flooding, and slow rising water that overtakes wells,

sewer systems, and basements. There are mudslides, wind damage, and

tornadoes. Thirty-nine counties and four reservations have been declared

federal disaster areas. Some 4,300 North Dakotans have already applied for

disaster-related housing assistance. Damaged bridges, culverts, and roads

continue to complicate travel and cause more overland flooding.

In the face of it all, a diverse group of disaster response organizations -

including the Salvation Army, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR),

American Red Cross, United Church of Christ, Christian Reformed World

Relief Committee, Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Rural Response

(LDR), Lutheran Social Services -- are asking themselves hard questions.

"How do we meet the people where the people are?" asked Bonnie Turner,

state director for LDR. "Here we have to look at disaster response as part

of a broader crisis -- the fact that the very farmers feeding the world

can't put food on their own tables."

LDR is working with the Orphan Grain Train and the Great Plains Food Bank

to stock food pantries in small towns, and has already received contracts

from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assess need and offer

crisis counseling in central and eastern North Dakota. "People are needing

to work on grief and loss issues," said Turner. LDR is also publishing a

directory, as well as a pocket-size pamphlet, of services available for

farmers.

Turner is also organizing a fall event she hopes will help farm families

gather and share their stories. In November, the Buschkotter family,

featured in the critically acclaimed PBS documentary The Farmer's Wife,

will travel from Nebraska to offer an empathetic perspective, making stops

in Fargo, Bismarck, and Minot.

Some people feel forgotten by the media -- and the nation -- because their

personal disaster isn't obvious, said Melvin Grilley, director of North

Dakota emergency response teams for the United Church of Christ. "Sometimes

you don't see a great deal. This time there's no big glory picture, no fire

burning in Grand Forks."

"But the ground out here is so saturated, the water is just creeping into

people's basements."

The city of Grand Forks flooded, then subsequently burned, during the

spring 1997 floods in the midwest, which destroyed or damaged 8,600 homes

and 1,616 apartments. North Dakota was slammed by eight record blizzards,

followed by a spring thaw that swelled rivers.

Some interfaith committees created then are still helping survivors recover

from that earlier bout. For example, the Valley Interfaith Coalition to

Recovery (VICTORY) is still administering $200,000 worth of building

materials monthly to help 1997 flood survivors.

"We have had about 40 volunteers a week this summer," said Terry Tuinder,

executive director. Since 1997, the group has distributed more than $2

million worth of building materials and other goods to disaster survivors.

VICTORY's outreach spans over a six-county area across North Dakota and

Minnesota.

New interfaiths are also emerging to assess and respond to unmet needs that

will stem from the summer. Elton LaBree, is helping to form a new

interfaith committee in Devils Lake. "We're in the baby steps right now,

considering our role. But I do know I'd like to tell people to do two

things: send volunteers and pray for us," he said.

Turner added that response groups -- whether newly emerging or already

existing -- must redefine their goals to address the current disaster, the

farm crisis, and the lingering unmet needs and trauma from 1997. "It's not

a matter of simply saying that people are losing their homes because of

flooding. We cannot divide the current crisis in North Dakota from the farm

crisis, or totally separate any of it from the past. Instead we're

broadening our vision of response," she said.


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