Flooded Lives: The Fight to Survive Devils Lake

Howard Blegen. Churchs Ferry, ND.jpg
Still, Churchs Ferry remains relatively dry, even as the nearby town of Minnewaukan slowly drowns. But perhaps the more stinging reality is that while the townspeople of Churchs Ferry were moved by FEMA, their neighbors populating the farmland just across the road were offered nothing—and now it is they who are going underwater.

Standing on Highway 2 facing north, I could see Churchs Ferry nestled in the trees; when I turned 180 degrees to face Minnewaukan, a community of farmhouses dotting thousands of acres of cropland, there was more water than dry land. The road before me led to an aging barn, but before that an orange-and-white barricade indicated the pavement was impassable—the farmyard was now a wetlands complete with cattails and moorhens swimming by.

To reach the land on the other side, I drove a mile east, turned onto a county road, and followed it south for a mile, turned again and headed back one mile west, then turned once more and headed north until I hit another barricade showing that the road was underwater—nearly a perfect square away from where I had begun in order to move just 50 yards forward. As I turned away from the farmstead toward the south, the road was dry, but just barely. The fields on either side were filled with water up to the lip of the asphalt. This was 66th Avenue NE, one of those long, pin-straight roads that superimpose a larger grid on the otherwise anonymous landscape, a road that has no identity or particular value to anyone but those who live here. But for a man named Howard Blegen, at that moment it was the single most important road in the world.

Howard is a buddy of Paul Christensen's; every week they go bowling together. He, too, grew up in Churchs Ferry, in the community south of town, on the farm that his grandfather homesteaded beginning in 1874. Today he and his family live in a modest house on 66th Avenue NE.

Howard drives a giant American pick-up with an extra row of seats that allows him to make the cab into a sort of mobile office. That's where we met and talked, pulled over on the side of 66th Avenue NE. From the road you could look across the water to another line of trees—another island—that marks the site of his grandfather's beloved homestead, now underwater. About a mile away was the cemetery where his grandfather and other relatives and friends are buried, which Howard says will also be underwater in a year or two.

But that's not what he wanted to talk about. His sole focus was this road. If the water at the lip should rise just an inch or two and spill across the asphalt, his whole life would change. He felt lucky, comparatively, that the road was still passable. But so many other roads and bridges had already been lost that mail service in the area was down to three days a week, school buses no longer came out here, and 911 calls were more or less moot—fire trucks and ambulances couldn't reach most of the residences.

"I'm not looking for someone to sit down and write a check," Howard told me. "What I'm saying is build a road, so 911 can come in, so the school bus can come in, so we can drive a normal vehicle to church on Sunday—so we can feel some normality to our lives. What we need is just a road in and out. Not a series of roads—we don't need a road every mile—just a good, solid road to the west to get us to 281." By this he meant the state highway that leads to Minnewaukan and then Jamestown; on to Aberdeen, South Dakota; and, eventually, all the way to San Antonio, Texas—a lifeline to the outside world.

But Howard and his neighbors had already asked the township to build such a road, and the township had replied that it was out of money—ask the county. The county had replied that it was also out of money—ask the state. The state had told them it was a county problem.

*


Since 1994 the federal government has contributed more than $200 million to flooding-related infrastructure improvements in the Devils Lake area. Yet that money has gone largely to stopgap measures—a levee that is raised every few years, the purchase of Churchs Ferry—not, at least as locals see it, to long-term solutions. That stings when compared to the national response that took place when the Red River flooded the state's biggest cities—Fargo in 2009 and Grand Forks in 1997.

"I'd bet a good steak dinner to anyone that within three years the project in Fargo will be completed and their flooding will be over," Paul said last year. "We're 17 years into it up here. We just don't have enough people, I guess, enough votes, enough politics."

Paul explained that local farmers believe the bureaucrats see them as bad eggs who suck up subsidy dollars, hardly a population to save. "It's not a Grand Forks with a great big Air Force base, not a Fargo with quarter-million population base, it's Devils Lake with 7,000 people and a rural population of 5,000 more. This area makes just enough noise that they come in and fix the roads and put up a dike to save Devils Lake, but the rest of it is: sorry, stay as long as you can."

Howard tells the story of when in 2009, FEMA set up a temporary crisis center for the Devils Lake community.

"I went from table to table to table, and I sat down at the last one [with] three guys from the crisis center. They were saying no roads are going to be built, there will be no buyouts, there's no this, no that. So I sat back and said, 'Basically, what you're telling me is that I'm screwed.'

"And they looked at me and said, 'Yes you are.'

"One of them spoke up and said, 'Well, not quite. You have an option, you have an out.' And I said, 'That's what I'm here for.' He said, 'Put a wood-burning stove in this summer. Sometime this winter when it gets good and cold, stoke it up, take the family to town for dinner, and when you get back it'll take care of itself.'

"I'm saying, 'What you're telling me is the only solution I have to survive is to burn my house down and collect fire insurance.' He said, 'I would seriously consider it.'"

Howard was appalled. Yet had he taken the advice he would not have been the first to stage his own demise. As fire chief of Churchs Ferry, Paul Christensen witnessed four different families burn down their houses. The first time it happened, he didn't know what was taking place. But as the house burned he pieced it together. It was mid-January, with huge snows on the ground that meant the farmer who lived in the house would be flooded out in spring. In the icy cold, the upstairs windows were open—ventilation.

Of course, now even this twisted scheme won't work for most. Since the fire trucks can't reach their houses, their fire insurance has been canceled. When the time comes, Howard said, the only thing to do will be to pack everything into his truck and leave the keys to his home on the kitchen table.


This article was written with the support of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. Images: Lisa M. Hamilton.


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Lisa M. Hamilton is a writer and photographer who focuses on agriculture and rural communities around the world.

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