Flooded Lives: The Fight to Survive Devils Lake

If water has been rising around your home for decades, what do you do? Most people leave. A few, like Paul Christensen, do not.

Paul Christensen. Churchs Ferry, ND.jpg

[This article is the second in a three-part series about North Dakota's Devils Lake, which has been flooding continuously for 18 years. To return to part one, click here.]

There is a group of satellite photos that show the changes that have taken place in the Devils Lake Basin since 1992, just before the flooding began. To look at the images in quick succession is like watching a paper towel blot spilled liquid: At first there is a scattering of individual blobs of dark water, but quickly they seep outward, growing rounder and fuller.

In the photo made in April 2010, the spill has soaked the surface. What were seven or so separate bodies of water have merged to become, effectively, one. People still refer to Lake Alice or (wryly) Dry Lake, but they are functionally all now part of Devils Lake, separated only by a strip of land about five miles wide that runs from east to west.

At the western edge of the spill is the town of Churchs Ferry. Or rather, by official accounting, that's where it used to be. In 1999, FEMA determined that preserving the town against the rising waters could only be temporary; sooner or later, it would go under. So rather than fortify the town they resolved to buy it out. By the following spring, Churchs Ferry was a ghost town.

If you stumbled upon this place without knowing its history, it would feel similar to any hollowed-out farm town from Maine to Washington. Stately old trees line every street, evidence that this place was settled long ago by people who meant to stay. A few relic buildings still stand—a blocky, brick City Hall built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, an antique, clapboard schoolhouse that suggests an innocence American children haven't known for years. But for the most part this place is simply grass and trees, with almost no houses or cars. As I walked the two blocks of what was once the main street I sensed that this town, like so many others, was simply too small to last.

And yet there is still life in Churchs Ferry. There is a population of 12, and in the center of town, or rather the place that has become the center of town, is a pair of buildings from the 1980s. One is a solid, featureless blue house, its lawn stuck with two flagless flagpoles and a wide, empty driveway leading into a two-car garage. Across the street is a white shop building, similarly blank except for one thing: It is surrounded by newish trucks and sedans from the 1990s, all American. Its door is open, and light and noise—life—stream out.

Every day of the working week, this place is inhabited by its owner and single employee, Paul Christensen. He is middle-aged and of medium height, with a slight belly that sags just over his silver belt buckle. He wears the uniform of a self-employed mechanic: ball cap and dusty t-shirt, jeans with knees worn from kneeling and thighs streaked gray from the wiping of hands. When Paul looks at you it is with the unshifting eyes of a person in a domain unequivocally his own.

After work and on weekends, Paul is across the street in the blue house, where he lives. Or he is at City Hall, performing his duties as mayor. Or he is manning the town's water pumps or the simple sewer system. In winter he plows the streets, and in spring he trims the trees. He is not the oldest person in town, but he has lived here the longest—with the exception of going to college in a town on the Minnesota border, he has been here virtually all of his 52 years. You could say that Churchs Ferry is Paul Christensen's life. But to be entirely accurate you would need to add that Paul Christensen is, in turn, the life of Churchs Ferry.


In 1934, before North Dakota's Devils Lake began flooding continuously, the region was also struggling with water, but this time for lack of it. It was the height of the Dust Bowl years, when clouds of soil blew over the Great Plains in a painful reminder that rain did not, in fact, follow the plow. Devils Lake was near its all-time low elevation on record, roughly 50 feet below where it is today.

In August 1934, President Roosevelt made a 50-mile driving tour of the region to witness the struggle firsthand. Afterward he spoke to the people of Devils Lake. As recorded in The New York Times, he said:

When you come to this water problem through here you are up against two things. In the first place, you are up against the forces of nature, and secondly, you are up against the fact that man in his present stage of development cannot definitely control those forces.

In retrospect we know that the tragedy of the Dust Bowl was not simply an act of nature. The impact of the years-long drought in the Plains was compounded by farming practices that had stripped the land of its plant cover. Certainly the dryness was a force of nature, but the ruin that followed was at least equally the result of man "in his present stage of development."

The story of today's flood may run parallel. The larger Devils Lake Basin covers 3,810 square miles and extends nearly to the Canada border. It's within the larger Prairie Pothole Region, an area of thousands of shallow wetlands that have grown up in depressions left by the melting of glaciers 10,000 years ago. It makes for rich wildlife habitat, but also erratic landscapes that resist the right-angle geometry of modern agriculture. Both to rein in wet areas of land within larger acreages and to create more farmland, farmers have drained the potholes since the 1920s. Consequentially, water that would have been held by the sponge-like wetlands—and at least partially evaporated there—instead runs off the land. Although no one has yet proved it, environmentalists and others argue that if the potholes in the Devils Lake Basin hadn't been drained in the first place, the lake would not have risen nearly as much.

But you'd be hard-pressed to find that argument voiced within the community around Devils Lake. Agriculture, as the mainstay of economy and culture in the region, holds a lot of political and social capital. Jeff Frith, manager of the Devils Lake Joint Water Resources Board, has been a leading voice in dispelling the connection between drainage and flooding. In a May 2010 column for several state newspapers, he seemed to reach the point of exasperation. "The fact is, we are in a wet cycle," he wrote, "and if it continues, restoring every acre of drained wetland will not prevent Devils Lake from overflowing."

Certainly the first part of his statement is undisputed—the wet cycle is a trend virtually everyone in eastern North Dakota has experienced firsthand. According to a 2008 study by the U.S. Geological Survey, it began in 1980 and has a 72 percent chance of continuing for another 10 years, and a 37 percent chance of lasting another three decades. Still, University of North Dakota professor Xiaodong Zhang, who has studied the hydrology of the region extensively, explains without hesitation that the wet cycles and subsequent rise of Devils Lake are caused almost entirely by climate change, both natural and anthropogenic. While he feels certain that human-induced change is a major factor, it's hard to say exactly what percentage it accounts for.

Likewise, it's impossible to pinpoint when a human influence might have begun. Gregg Wiche, director of the USGS North Dakota Water Science Center, explains that because the current flooding falls within the range of what researchers know happened in the early 1800s, it's hard to say that this wet cycle is taking place for a different reason.

"We just don't have the evidence that this is the result of [anthropogenic] climate change—that it wouldn't have happened otherwise," he said. "I can't say that there isn't some impact, but I don't think it's the driving force. Really, we're left with the short answer: We just don't know."

What's clear is that, as with the Dust Bowl, human activity has aggravated the impact of this climate change, most notably by reducing the landscape's capacity to respond to the wet cycle. In a 1997 study, researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculated that in the entire Devils Lake Basin, roughly 189,000 of the 400,000 acres of natural wetlands have been drained.

To actually stem the flow of water into Devils Lake by restoring the natural watershed would require monumental funding. Perhaps equally prohibitive, it would ask an entire region's worth of farmers to sacrifice some or all of their hard-won land. For the time being, neither of these things is an option. And so the lake keeps rising, and entire communities keep slowly sinking underwater.


City Hall. Churchs Ferry, ND.jpg

As Paul describes it, Churchs Ferry used to be a Rockwellian dream come true. No crime, a good school, basketball games that would draw nearly everyone in town to fill the bleachers. Everybody knew everybody, and treated the neighbors' kids as if they were their own. "Everything that would appeal to a family person was here," he said, "because we were all just like one big family."

In truth the town was hemorrhaging people at least a decade before the flooding began, thanks to the farm crisis of the early 1980s and the generally ruthless agricultural economy. By 1988, the school had closed, normally the first chime of a small town's death knell. But Paul was unfazed. Having started his auto repair business in 1986, he devoted his energy to keeping the community strong. He got on the city council. He volunteered as fire chief. To raise money for the community club he organized a demolition derby, which in time would become an annual event drawing more than a thousand people from throughout the region. For Paul, Churchs Ferry remained the perfect place to live.

Before the FEMA buy-out in 1999, 103 people lived in the 52 houses within town limits. Paul's family was offered the same terms as their neighbors, but they were one of just two households to refuse. And so Paul could do nothing but watch as the 97 people who comprised his hometown moved away that autumn. Most of their houses remained, scheduled for demolition in spring, and he continued to watch as, over the winter, strangers looted them.

"I'd see people pull up at night with cars and flashlights. Three guys would jump out and they'd be in there for an hour and come out with a furnace or a hot water heater. A lot of them were older houses that had nice old banisters and stuff like that, and they'd just come in and steal that stuff. That was really, really, really hard for me."

The following spring, he watched as the empty houses were razed.

As I walked Churchs Ferry with Paul, what had looked before like an empty town was revealed in fact to be a town that had been emptied. He showed me that the single, giant lawn covering nearly the entire town was actually a collection of individual yards, the grass having spread across the sites where the houses once were and sewn the various lots together into one. The lines of shrubs and trees that had seemed to appear at random were now clearly the delineations.

Around the corner from Paul's shop was City Hall. Those organizing the demolition of Churchs Ferry wanted to tear down this building, too, but through a lot of what Paul remembers as "kicking and screaming," he convinced them to let it be. Today he leaves it unlocked for the former residents who occasionally come back and want to visit what remains of the town.

Inside is a single, wide-open room that had doubled as an auditorium and a basketball court with an ancient wooden floor and not nearly enough room—the top of each key nearly touching the center circle, and the sidelines leaving only a 12-inch strip between the court and the edge of the theater stage. Paul holds City Council meetings at half court, at a wood-veneer card table equipped with five metal folding chairs spray stenciled to read "CFC." At the end of the room, below one of the regulation basketball hoops at about five feet off the ground, Paul has bolted in another basketball hoop; he installed it last year so he and his toddler grandson could shoot hoops in bad weather.

Paul and I talked in the office of his shop, a narrow back room crowded with papers and softbound manuals of cars and trucks. He said that he refused FEMA's buy-out offer because it would have lost him money. He had built his house just eight years before, and estimated that if he had taken the payment they offered for it he would have been $40,000 short in buying a comparable home elsewhere. For his shop he was offered compensation for the building but not the business, a loss he deemed both unacceptable and financially impossible.

But as he talked it seemed clear that his true motivation for rejecting FEMA's offer is that he did not want to leave. During summer Paul mows the 30 acres of lawn himself, gladly. He still puts on the demolition derby each June.

"All my hard work comes to the culmination of, people come in here and say, Jeez, who the heck does all that mowing? How come nobody lives here? It's such a nice little town," he said. "I guess that's my way of saying, this whole thing of letting everything flood out is wrong. This is what it should be like. Churchs Ferry, Minnewaukan—our biggest worries should be mosquitoes or mowing the grass, not where are we going to go when we get flooded out."

I asked him when he will know it's time to leave. While town is mostly at an elevation of 1,457 feet, his home and shop are at 1,461, which means that before water reaches his house the streets will become impassable. But perhaps even before the lake's rise makes town unlivable in a practical sense, he foresees an experiential demise. There is no window here in the shop's office, but as Paul leaned against a stool and talked he imagined looking outside and seeing all the trees dead, rotted from the ground up. He imagined the small-town beauty that he works so hard to maintain drowned by the lake.

"By that time, if a person were to stay, I think the depression, the psychological part of it, would be so demoralizing it just wouldn't be safe or healthy for people to stay here," he said. He was speaking from the experience of watching people in lower areas go through just that dissolution. "If you go too long bad things can happen to you physically or emotionally. And it isn't worth that. You can take your money, you can take your house, you can take your town, but by God, at the end of the day, you have to have a little sanity, and a little self-respect, and a little pride. If the situation gets that away from you, then by golly you've stayed too long."

NEXT: Paul's friend Howard and their struggles with the government

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.

The Complete Devils Lake Series: