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'We are officially homeless'

GARSKE, N.D. -- Vickie and Dan Erickstad spent part of their 38th anniversary this week looking around their farmstead -- from a mile or more away. They haven't been able to get any closer than that since they were forced from their home April 15...

GARSKE, N.D. -- Vickie and Dan Erickstad spent part of their 38th anniversary this week looking around their farmstead -- from a mile or more away.

They haven't been able to get any closer than that since they were forced from their home April 15, when floodwaters swamped the last road to their place.

"We didn't even know if we were going to be able to make it out," Dan Erickstad said. "We couldn't believe it happened that fast."

They had spent five days packing, trying to decide what to take, what to leave, hopefully just until winter, when they should be able to drive back over frozen fields.

The Erickstads started their farming operation in 1975, while Vickie started her own beauty business, Country Styles by Vic. Son Jonathan joined the operation in 1996.


"The emotions that go along with leaving my home, my business and farm are too fresh and too painful to put into words," Vickie wrote in an essay the day they moved out.

"Our family worked side by side to pack up 36 years worth of memories, all the while shedding tears of sadness, anger, frustration and bewilderment as to why this has been allowed to happen," she wrote.

Jonathan Erickstad, and daughter, Danielle Skaar, and their families -- five grandchildren -- helped them pack, then drive away in four loaded pickups and a tractor pulling a swather.

"Each one of us was shedding tears, praying that the road would hold out for this last trip," she wrote. "My husband stopped at the end of the driveway to pull our mailbox and said, 'Well, I guess we are officially homeless.' And with that, the last of the dream we had been living was shattered."

Upper basin anthem

Like many others being flooded out of their rural homes and farms, the Erickstads believe this never should have happened.

"We're not the first and we're not the only victims," Dan Erickstad said. "We're just the latest."

While more than $1 billion has been spent to fight this 18-year-old flood, during which Devils Lake has risen more than 30 feet and quadrupled in size, they say little has been done to protect people in the upper basin.


This spring, the North Dakota Legislature approved $120 million to build a second outlet and a control structure to release water to the Sheyenne River Valley. But the two outlets, when fully operational, will drain only about half of the annual average inflows from the upper basin, beginning in 2012.

A group of people in the Sheyenne Valley contend that the second outlet should not be built until a comprehensive study is completed to determine all costs, both financially and environmentally.

Devils Lake Basin residents say they have been paying a heavy price already, and that the $120 million outlet project is more of a political answer than a practical one. More, not less, water should be moving downstream to avoid what officials say would be a catastrophic flood if Devils Lake rises past 1,458 feet above sea level, the point at which it would spill uncontrollably to the Sheyenne.

The lake reached a record 1,453.83 feet Friday, already about 1.7 feet higher than the 2010 record level.

The result is more and more land, homes and roads are going under water. A North Dakota State University study earlier this year showed the annual economic cost of the flood in the Devils Lake Basin at $194 million.

When some friends and neighbors read Vickie Erickstad's essay, they decided to spread it around. They managed to have it read on a regional radio program on The Flag 1100 AM.

"It was just raw emotion," she said.

The letter has become a rallying cry, or an anthem, for people living in the upper basin.


"This is the price we have to pay so other people aren't inconvenienced," said Tammy Tollefson, who read the letter on the air. Tollefson, who raises horses on a farm north of Minnewaukan, N.D., just lost the last road to her farm to floodwaters this week.

Trying to look ahead

Like many of their neighbors, the Erickstads started to lose farmland back in 1997.

"At the time, we figured you lose 100 acres, you can live with this," Jonathan Erickstad said.

But year after year, the losses keep mounting.

Through last year, they had lost 1,700 acres of farmland, half of it their own.

It's land that produced 200 bushels of corn per acre, 50 bushels of soybeans and 90 bushels of winter wheat.

"It's all under water now," Dan Erickstad said. "That was going to be our retirement."


Ramsey County Highway 10, the road past the Erickstad farms in DeGroat Township, nearly went under last year. But the township managed to get funding to raise it.

"I had to call the governor's office before we got any action," said Dan, who serves on the township board.

His 85-year-old uncle, who was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, and aunt lived on the farmstead to the west, and the service that delivered the drugs would not allow its trucks to drive on the road.

The aunt and uncle moved into town a couple of months ago.

"This is how the state feels we should live," Jonathan Erickstad said.

The Erickstads have moved their farming operation headquarters to family property on the south end of Garske, a tiny village along N.D. Highway 20, some 17 miles north of Devils Lake.

Dan and Vickie bought a semi-trailer to store the belongings they retrieved from their home. Jonathan and his family still have access to their home west of Garske.

They won't have access to four grain bins and a 16,000-gallon fuel tank that are on Dan's farmstead this year. And they don't know how much land they'll be able to farm.


More than 1,000 acres of land that was farmed in 2008 now is under water.

"Now, it's under water 5 to 6 feet deep," Jonathan said.

Not enough

With more miles of roadway going under water each week, the Erickstads and their neighbors throughout the Devils Lake Basin are looking for answers. Many of them packed into a special meeting Thursday of the Ramsey County Commission, to see what will be done about roads to their farms and their fields.

Even though the state Legislature allocated funding to ease the financial burden of local governments to repair flood-damaged roads, there will not be enough money to go around, County Commission Chairman Joe Belford said Friday.

"We took an aerial tour of the basin yesterday and it's just unreal," he said. "We're going to have to set some priorities. But we have to work fast."

The commission will meet Tuesday with officials from rural utilities and transportation agencies, to start the process.

It all leaves families such as the Erickstads and their neighbors treading water, wondering when or if they'll ever get to return.


So far, Dan and Vickie have been staying with relatives.

"We would love to go back home," Dan said. "But even if we'd get the road built up, there's no guarantee we would continue to have electricity, there's so few of us out here anymore. We'll get by. A lot of people have it worse than us."

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com .

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