DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Hundreds of families displaced. Traumatized children causing problems in schools. Landowners losing everything and sickened from the stress.
It sounds like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but these symptoms are appearing much farther north — in North Dakota. A popular lake often used for recreation is rising ominously and spreading, drowning homes and lucrative fields of crops.
"It's like a cancer," says Joe Belford, a business owner and county commissioner.
Devils Lake, west of Grand Forks in the north-central part of the state, has risen about 26 feet since 1993. If it keeps rising and the area's "wet cycle" continues, as some meteorologists predict, the lake could rise an additional 11 feet by 2012.
"With Katrina or Rita, the storm came and left," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "In this case, the flood comes and stays. So you are just never free of it. It's never over, so you don't get closure."
Ironically, much of the rest of the state is in record drought.
Minnewaukan is a small town that used to be eight miles from the lake. It is now directly on the lake, which has eaten up the school's football field and driven away the local church.
Roofs peek out of the water as fishermen pilot boats where crops once grew.
Resident Al Staloch sells flood insurance, which is the good news. The bad news, he said, is that two more feet of water could flood the sewer system and drive him out of town.
"If that happens, I'm going to Bismarck," he said. "If the water comes up two or three feet, there is a good chance the town won't be here."
About 1,000 people have left this area of less than 10,000, said Belford, the county commissioner. Already, 75,000 acres of privately owned land is under water, and most owners are still paying taxes on it. Dikes and levees worth about $50 million are protecting the Devils Lake area from floodwaters, and those barriers are still being raised.
Without them, Belford said, his convenience store downtown would be under 9 feet of water.
Belford spends much of his time lobbying for money and overseeing ways to control the flooding. He said the water has changed the town's character and reduced social life on the lake.
When the water first started rising, he said, people were angry.
"People were mad at it," he said. "They were hurt."
Some have become depressed. In 1998, Jen Foss' husband, Raymond, died of a heart attack after they lost most of their wheat, barley and flax fields to flooding.
"He was healthy as a horse," she said. "I can't even remember him having the flu. We had to move off, and that's what really did the number on him. He didn't care about nothing anymore and pretty soon he had a heart attack."
There also have been problems in schools.
Steve Swiontek, superintendent of Devils Lake Public Schools, said students have had many questions. Are their houses going to be moved or flooded? Are they going to have to move out of the school district?
"I think it's on the back of their minds, what's happening and what's going to happen," he said.
Swiontek said behavioral problems have lessened as the flooding has become more of a way of life, but the schools are still losing students. Before 2000, the district had around 2,200 students. Fewer than 1,800 will start this academic year.
Doug Boknecht, a clinical social worker, has run crisis counseling programs in the area. He said North Dakotans are resilient, but the flooding can be like "Chinese water torture."
"It creeps and it creeps," he said.
Boknecht said there is some hope with a new outlet that is designed to drain excess Devils Lake water into the Sheyenne River. The project has stalled because of low water levels and sulfate in the river. Canada opposes the project, fearing it will send harmful material north. The Sheyenne River is a tributary of the Red River, which flows north into Manitoba's Lake Winnipeg.
"The outlet is very helpful, when it's running, because it gives people a sense that we aren't just depending on nature and her whims," he said.
Dwight Williamson, an administrator for the Manitoba Department of Water Stewardship, said Canadians across the border "understand completely" what it is like to be flooded but their interest is protecting their environment.
Foss remembers fondly a grove of trees now lost to the waters.
"We had such a pretty place," she said, "and all of the trees are all dried up and dead."