WADING GUSTS: Couple assesses flood damage, waits for buyout
RURAL BROCKET, N.D. -- Casey, JoAnne and Brendan Gust pull on knee-high rubber boots along the side of the gravel road. The warm breeze offers a respite from the hot sun as they ready themselves for the two-mile trek to their home. "These boots s...
RURAL BROCKET, N.D. -- Casey, JoAnne and Brendan Gust pull on knee-high rubber boots along the side of the gravel road.
The warm breeze offers a respite from the hot sun as they ready themselves for the two-mile trek to their home.
"These boots should be OK, but I don't know," JoAnne says, as she surveys the first leg of the journey along a water-covered gravel road in Sauter Township.
They haven't been inside the house in just more than a year, since the last of the roads leading to their home became impassable.
"We were driving through water bumper-deep when we moved out," she says. "We took what we needed to get by, things from the first floor, some clothes, nothing from the shop."
That was July 6, 2009.
On this day, July 13, 2010, they're going back, on foot, just to see how high the water is, and to see what might be salvageable.
They're joined by a reporter and a photographer.
Five minutes after wading into the first stretch of water, JoAnne's father, Jim Kraft, shows up, puts on his boots and starts walking toward us.
We move slowly, partly to allow Kraft to catch up, partly to make sure the road hasn't washed away under the next step, to avoid falling into the murky, weed-filled slough.
We walk about a quarter-mile in water that comes just below the tops of our boots, before reaching a small incline and dry gravel. So far so good, JoAnne says.
But as we reach the crest of the hill, we see another stretch of water, this one nearly twice as long as the first. It's not only longer, but deeper.
We walk in something of a broken, wavy line, each trying to find the highest ridge, in the center of the road or along the edges, trying to maintain our balance.
Before long, water begins pouring into our boots.
This portion of the hike takes a good 20 minutes before we hit high ground again.
"See that roof out there, on the right?" Casey asks. "That's the start of our farmyard."
It's a long way off, at least in these conditions.
It turns out to be about an 85-minute walk to the farmyard. About half of that time is spent walking through water that measures knee-high to nearly hip-high in several spots.
We finally reach the house. It appears to be dry, although water is creeping up to within 10 or 15 feet from the house's west side -- much closer, they say, than a few months ago, when Casey got a glimpse in early spring -- and is flooding a few buildings on the farmstead.
We venture inside.
Wood doors are swollen, difficult to open.
Wood paneling that JoAnne's father installed a couple of years ago is warping.
Carpeting is damp, floors rotting.
The basement has taken on about 2 feet of water.
The musty smell is everywhere. Signs of mold are apparent, even from a distance.
"It's just unreal," says Jim, who lives in rural Devils Lake.
"When you actually see it, it's depressing," says Casey.
Casey Gust was raised on this farm.
His grandfather, Sylvester Gust, homesteaded here in 1912. His father and mother, Bob and Judy Gust, lived and farmed here. The present house was built in 1933.
"It's kind of surreal for me," JoAnne says. "It makes me sad. This is where we figured we'd be when we were 90, and Brendan would be saying, it's time you move into town. Now, we don't know where we'll be next year."
Flooding has been an issue in this area for 17 years, since a wet cycle hit the Devils Lake Basin, and the Gusts aren't the only family to be forced from their homes in this corner of the basin.
At least three homes in Walsh County's Sauter Township are inaccessible because of high water. Surrounding townships in Walsh, Nelson and Ramsey counties are experiencing similar problems.
The Gusts were rejected last year for a flood buyout through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It seems the property doesn't qualify because the flooding is from a slough that won't drain, rather than a river or a lake, according to Walsh County Highway Superintendent Sharon Lipsh.
The federal government also says the township road that leads to the Gust home is not eligible for federal funding, because of adverse wetland impacts, she said.
"This road isn't going to be fixed," Lipsh said. "We worked with them for a long time. FEMA finally said, 'we don't do that program.' We wasted 6 months of time."
The cost of raising and repairing the road to the Gust home is estimated at $400,000.
It's one of five grade raises -- totaling $1 million -- that Walsh County is trying to get done in this area. The applications were submitted in 2009. But FEMA has not yet delivered 2009 funding to Walsh County and other flood-damaged counties in the region.
The Gusts are receiving rental assistance. They've been living in a rented house in Edmore, N.D., about 15 miles away, where Brendan will be a junior in high school in the fall.
In recent months, the county has been working with the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services on an alternative proposal to help the Gusts.
"In the long run, they want to use that $400,000 for a grade raise and sign it up for other repairs, other roadways," she said. It could provide emergency road repairs and have enough money left over to buy out Gusts' house.
But the project needs a local sponsor. Sauter Township has approved the plan. The Walsh County Commission will consider the proposal this week.
The buyout process is tricky, too. The Gusts have to find a private company to assess the damage to the house.
"They can't drive in," Lipsh said. "I don't know if they get to it. The other problem is we have to get the land surveyed because they'll only buy out the house and the garage, not the other buildings. I feel bad for them. It's a very frustrating process."
JoAnne Gust has an idea. She'll guide the surveyors and assessors down the same water-logged road -- two-plus wet miles in, two-plus wet miles out -- she and her family hiked this past week.
"People at the courthouse are tired of listening to me," she said.
"You get to the point where you say we're just glad we're alive, that a lot of people have it worse. But it's frustrating. It could be a $10 million mansion. It doesn't matter if you can't get to it."
Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to email@example.com .