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.'