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FEMA director gets a look at Devils Lake flooding

DEVILS LAKE, N.D.

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DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown flew over flooded fields and drove on flooded roads, telling residents here that he knows of no simple way to control a lake that has risen for more than a decade.

"I understand we need to fix this, we need to get moving on it," Brown said Thursday, during a visit to the Devils Lake basin.

"It's surprising that every road I drove on, there was a different elevation," he said.

Later, after Brown attended a forum with about 50 area residents, Mike Gilbertson of Devils Lake told the FEMA director that he wants to move his house away from the floodwaters, at a cost of about $5,000.

Under federal rules, he said, he must wait until the house is destroyed, which would push the cost closer to $70,000.

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"It sounds like a no-brainer to me," Gilbertson said in an interview. "Hopefully, something can be done. But I've learned that when it comes to bureaucracy, you can't count your chickens."

Brown said that Gilbertson's situation is "the sort of thing that drives me absolutely batty."

"We can do something about that," he said.

The FEMA director said he would not promise more money, but would try to get federal agencies together to set priorities. State officials estimate more than $500 million is needed for road and dike raising, highway construction, home buyouts, and for an outlet to ease flooding.

Gov. John Hoeven and Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, both D-N.D., joined Brown on the tour of the flooded area. Dorgan said the area is suffering from "chronic flooding," a term that Brown said best described the situation.

Devils Lake has reached an all-time high in recorded history at more than 1,449 feet and nearly $400 million, mostly federal money, already has been spent to raise roads, dikes and move structures.

Hoeven and the two senators want Brown to help organize federal agencies and get money to help fix roads and dikes.

"He said he would do that," Hoeven said in an interview. "Now we'll see how fast we can get him to help us put something together."

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Hoeven said Brown can help stop the federal Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from ducking their responsibilities. Too often, those agencies go back and forth on whether a structure is a road or a dike, Hoeven said.

Brown said Hoeven made a "gutsy decision" to begin construction on the west-end outlet, but said that no single thing is going to solve the problem. The outlet is opposed by neighboring Manitoba and Minnesota, as well as people in downstream North Dakota communities who say the water quality is poor.

"A lot of solutions will create problems elsewhere," Brown said at a press conference. "We have to recognize that and come together to put all of our desires, wishes and objections on the table.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I'm not going to fib to you, it's going to be tough, folks," he said.

Many residents favor an east-end outlet at Stump Lake, but the water quality there is even worse, said State Engineer Dale Frink.

"If Canada doesn't like the west end, I don't know how you're going to talk them into the east end," Frink said.

People at the forum told Brown the problem is "quantity not quality," and the downstream residents may get the water whether they want it or not. If the lake reaches 1,460 feet, the Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that damage would reach $900 million, with $242 million of that downstream, said Joe Belford, Ramsey County commissioner.

"The Devils Lake basin is in crisis," Conrad said. "This is an urgent matter that demands attention and demands a full federal response."

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