Rising water isolates many Dakotan families

BY SUSAN KIM | ROSLYN, S.D. | December 14, 1998

ROSLYN, S.D. (Dec. 14, 1998) -- Whenever Marianne Aadland hears a

popping sound, it's time to shovel and sweep away another section of her

floor. Rising water has caused the foundation of her two-bedroom house to

sink -- in turn buckling and crumbling the cement floor in her basement.

Recently she was mowing her lawn when her head brushed the clothesline. "That

means the backyard has sunk at least one-and-a-half feet," she said. When a

neighbor helped pull up the clothesline poles, Marianne discovered water under

a foot-thick layer of dry dirt.

"I think that within a year I'll have a sinkhole in my backyard," she said.

The rising water has driven garter snakes from their dens. They sun themselves

on Marianne's front lawn. "I walk around with a hoe," she said. The corner of

her garage has separated from the house, and mold from the damp conditions has

aggravated her allergies.

"My face is swollen and my eyes hurt," she said.

Then she sums up the feelings of hundreds of residents from the lake basins of

North and South Dakota: "The water is driving me crazy."

Water has been on a slow rise in both the Waubay Lake basin of South Dakota

and the Devils Lake region of North Dakota since 1993. Not only are the major

lakes rising, but once-dry sloughs are becoming groundwater pools or even new


Water is lapping up to the shoulders of roads that have already been

raised 8-9 feet. Hundreds of thousands of acres of once-productive farmland

and pastures are under water. So are entire power stations. Daily, residents

make the agonizing decision of whether to foot the bill to move their entire

home, try to stave off the water with drain tiles, or just let nature take


Above-average rainy seasons for several years running do not wholly explain the

slow but devastating floods in these regions. Part of the frustration for

people is simply not knowing why this is happening. As counties strapped for

money can no longer maintain roads or ambulance services, lawsuits over water

drainage pit farmer against farmer, and the already-stricken farm economy

plunges further into decline. Faith-based organizations and churches have

realized their response must be unique and united.

"What we have is a completely different type of disaster," said Bonnie Turner,

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. "The Red River Valley flooding

(Spring 1977) was like a heart attack. Well, this is a cancer. It's eating

away at people's lives. There are thousands of acres projected to go under

still. We are really seeing depressed communities."

In the North Dakota Devils Lake region, faith-based leaders from Lutheran

Disaster Response, United Methodist Committee on Relief, United Church of

Christ, Catholic Social Services, Second Harvest, the Grain Train, and the

Salvation Army have formed the Resource Agencies Faith Team, or RAFT.

RAFT has created a Disaster Information Center at the Devils Lake Mall,

staffed through funds pooled from the various denominations, where people can

both learn about available resources or simply share their frustrations. RAFT

is also funding the printing of a wallet-size card that lists resources from

mental health to day care to food assistance.

RAFT also plans to work with the Agriculture Department to pair mental health

professionals with agriculture mediators, so that farm families hearing about

their government assistance options can also learn how local churches can help.

"We realized that when people from the agriculture department talk to a

family, they usually have great information on the financial options -- but the

missing component was mental health. We want to bring a message of hope," said


In South Dakota's Waubay Lake basin, Nina Martin, project coordinator of

the United Methodist-related organization, Upper Midwest Recovery, agreed

that the slow flooding requires a different response. "In faster-moving

disasters -- like the last major flood -- you have a much more tangible

mission as a response organization. In this, you find yourself asking: at

what point does it become a crisis?

"People are fighting like crazy to keep their homes. But even when they win

that, their access is cut off when water covers the road. Historically, this

part of the country was once a lake, and now nature is reclaiming the land."

Upper Midwest Recovery has hired two people in that area, one to identify

needs and resources, the other a parish nurse who works with the ecumenical

ministerial association to provide both basic medical services and mental

health referrals.

The Rev. Brad Peterson, pastor at American Lutheran Church in Webster, S.D.,

has worked with Lutheran Disaster Response to stock a Needs Anonymous store,

providing food, clothes, and other personal items for flood survivors. An

ecumenical Crop Walk, sponsored by Church World Service, raised additional

funds to support the response effort.

"An interesting ray of sunshine in all this is that, while farming is in

jeopardy, other industries in this area -- such as fiberglass plants and

fisheries -- are expanding as the community tries to look at alternatives to a

completely agriculture-based economy," he said.

"It's a strange type of disaster. You have time to deal with it, but somehow

you're never really prepared. You think you always have more time."

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