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Never-ending ND flood takes toll

BY LARA BRICKER | DEVILS LAKE, ND | August 28, 2001


"This is a 10-year tragedy and it's not getting better. The water's always there, it doesn't go away."

—Debra Ball-Kilbourne


The rising of water in Devils Lake, like a persistent cancer, keeps eating away at the surrounding land and is taking its toll on relief organizations, who are struggling to find needed volunteers and money to continue to help local residents.

"There's not an ongoing funding pool and that's unfortunate," said Bonnie Turner of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. The group has temporarily ceased their response to the situation, but is ready if more widespread flooding occurs. "It's really a shame when (the flooding) goes on and on and on without a solution. It's not an

ongoing crisis where every day you have to have an active program."

The 100,000 acre lake has risen 25-feet since 1993, caused more than $400 million in damage and forced 400 homes to be moved. The waters have destroyed more than 50,000 acres of farmland and impacted the local economy. And there is no end in sight as the "wet cycle" that has caused the flooding is predicted to continue for another seven to 10 years.

Some residents have learned to cope with the constant anxiety that comes with not knowing when the waters will reach their homes, said Doug Boknecht, the head socialworker at the Lake Region Human Service Center. "The news isn't all bad, people can also develop resiliencies and expertise in dealing with (a disaster)," said Boknecht, who coordinated the part of the disaster outreach program that offered counseling for flood victims. But stress from the flooding has caused a number of people to become despondent. "The people we see tend to be those who have other concerns, (such as) a history of depression or substance abuse."

And the flooding is suspected to have pushed some young people over the edge, Boknecht said. Statistics on the number of suicides in Devils Lake by those ages 10 to 24 show a dramatic increase since 1993, when the flooding began. While the evidence is not totally conclusive, Boknecht said the flood stress is suspected to be related

to the deaths.

Not all young people in the area have suffered, said Sharon Georgeson, the Christian Education Director for the Bdecan Presbyterian Church. Volunteers from across the country showed up to help the church clean up after flooding. While there, they also

formed friendships with the children of the church, teaching them new songs and games, she said. "The kids just cried after the groups left," Georgeson said.

The church is also looking for a generous donor from somewhere in New York who sent them bundles of supplies such as towels and clothes. "They're still saying thank you," Georgeson said of the people of her church. "Even though our district is about the safest, we're still impacted because of the financial situation. We're just trying to

survive."

In wiping out thousands of acres of farmland the flooding has severely impacted the livelihood of the grain farmers in the area, explained Tim Heisler, Ramsey County Emergency Manager. The wet climate has caused new types of fungus and disease on the crops. "Tourism, recreation and hunting are probably the things that are keeping us afloat," Boknecht said. "People come from all across the nation to fish for jumbo perch here."

The long-term flooding and loss of land associated with the growth of the lake has been the first disaster of its type for local and federal relief organizations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had to develop a legal closed-basin lake policy in reaction to the situation in Devils Lake.

Funds initially allocated for other areas have been redirected to Devils Lake. "It's not fair, but what are we supposed to do?" asked Heisler. "It's getting to the point that something has to be done."

The situation with Devils Lake is unique, as it is a closed basin body of water, with no outlets. Aside from some natural evaporation, there is no place for the water to go.

But now there is a glimmer of a drier future, in a controversial plan, which would build an outlet from the lake to the Cheyenne River. The plan would require cooperation between the United States and Canada, as the water would eventually end up in that country. Heisler, who has traveled to Winnipeg, Canada to talk with officials

there, said while "they're willing to listen" they don't want the water either.

Those in the path of the lake are praying that the results from an environmental impact study that is examining the possibility of building the outlet are in their favor. Without the outlet, there is no end in sight. "We've lost enough here, we're trying to save what we have," said Heisler. "When you deal with a disaster this much, you

just wait and see and say, 'we'll deal with that when it comes."'

The flooding has led people to move from the area but those who have stayed are faced with daily flooding and moving their homes. FEMA's National Flood Insurance Programs has already paid out over $26 million to help residents in the path of the lake, physically move their houses out of harms way.

"It's a very sad situation," said Turner, of LSS of North Dakota, who added the force of Mother Nature has taken an emotional toll on the residents of Devils Lake and the Native American Spirit Lake Nation. "If you are always kind of it that crisis mode, it wears you down. For people who live there, after a while, the crisis becomes the

norm."

"One of the things that helps mitigate stress is to have some control over you destiny," Boknecht said, adding the outlet plan would help alleviate the constant worry.

Debra Ball-Kilbourne, director of mission engagement for the Dakotas conference of the United Methodist Church, said the disaster has also forced her organization to look at new ways to respond to the unique disaster. She is one of only two full-time employees of her office. While volunteers are available to help with day-to-day needs such as cleaning basements, a different approach is being considered.

The Dakotas Conference is starting to plan a two to three week "mission blitz" for the summer of 2002, which will include hundreds of volunteers, in an effort to make a dent in the ongoing flood damage. "We think it would make a psychological and spiritual uplifting (for the residents)," Ball-Kilbourne said. "This is a 10-year tragedy and it's not getting better. The water's always there, it doesn't go away."


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