Archive for Monday, June 26, 2000

Flood threats wash town off the map

June 26, 2000

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— As Paul Christenson tackles engine problems in his automotive repair shop, he ponders a bigger challenge how to keep a rapidly shrinking community alive.

Within weeks, Christenson will be the mayor and fire chief of a town of seven, after the rest of his 100 neighbors have taken advantage of a voluntary federal buyout plan and moved to higher ground.

A wet cycle on the Northern Plains has caused nearby Devils Lake to rise nearly 25 feet since 1992. With no outlet in this flat country, the water has spread across tens of thousands of acres, the lake more than doubled in area.

Year by year, it swallows more land.

Many residents have already left, leaving behind empty houses that soon will be flattened by wrecking balls or hauled to safer land.

"It's a nice town. Tough to see it go," Christenson said, standing on the gravel main street and surveying the nearly deserted community.

Christenson, 42, does not plan to move his business or his wife and three children from his hometown. But the Christenson family and one other couple are the only ones to reject buyout offers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Everyone else in the north-central North Dakota town has left, or is packing. Many are moving to Leeds, another small town 15 miles down the road.

The town's last days are marked by a mixture of sadness, resignation and residual hostility from months of debate between those who took the $3.5 million buyout and the holdouts who chose to stay.

"There's a lot of bitterness, a lot of people not speaking to each other," said Sid Bingaman, who organized a school reunion this weekend that many say will be the town's last hurrah.

Bingaman said he expected about 400 people to attend, although the buyout likely stopped some from coming back.

"Some of the older people want to remember things as they were," he said.

"Things are pretty well mellowed out," said Jim Savaloja, tinkering with a race car he is building in the shop that houses his mobile home moving business. "Some people are still unhappy. But all of the real serious discussions they're gone."

He is among those heading to Leeds.

Rex and Pat Armstrong are glad that the heated arguments in their bar are a thing of the past.

"It got to the point where I said 'If you came in here to talk about the buyout, get out,"' Pat Armstrong said. "Some people are still bitter about it, and they'll go to their grave being bitter."

Churchs Ferry was established in 1883 when Irvine Church started a ferry business on the Mauvais Coulee, the route by which much of a nine-county area drains into Devils Lake.

On June 12, a House Appropriations subcommittee approved $2.2 million for engineering, design and environmental studies for a proposed emergency drainage outlet for Devils Lake. But the move was seen locally as just the first step in a long process that won't help Churchs Ferry's short-term problem.

What many describe as lucrative government offers for homes appraised value plus an incentive were too good to turn down, despite the prospect of a possible long-term solution that hinges on nature waiting for politics.

"There was the uncertainty of the future would there be a buyout offer five years from now?" Christenson said. "I don't think anybody is second-guessing. It's just an emotional thing. You've been here for years, and it's tough to leave."

George Christian, 78, who remembers a time when Churchs Ferry had several stores, a blacksmith shop and a lumberyard, is putting together a book to ensure that the town's history is not lost.

The demise of the town "would have happened eventually on its own," he said, shuffling through piles of paper, photographs and maps littering the kitchen table in his farmhouse.

"Only maybe it would have happened a little more gracefully."

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