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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published May 11 2010

Flooded Devils Lake-area roads a hazard for emergency crews

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – A few moments after the North Dakota Department of Transportation closed a portion of flooded North Dakota Highway 20 at Spring Lake, near Tokio, on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation recently, Elvera Snyder plotted the closure on a sophisticated interactive county road map.

“That’s a seven-mile stretch to Tokio,” said the co-director of the Lake Region Law Enforcement 911 Center. “Now, we’ve just doubled or tripled the mileage. We just hope we can get to residents in an emergency.”

Snyder spends a good share of her time updating the interactive map, to help guide volunteer fire and ambulance service and other first responders through a maze of soggy and sometimes flooded gravel or paved roads throughout the Devils Lake Basin.

“It’s getting to the point where you don’t ask, ‘what’s your address?’ It’s ‘how can we get there?’ Our ambulances are going to have to try to get to those places. But in many of those places, they may have to go through water. It’s been a real test for our dispatchers, and it’s only going to get worse.”

Township, county and even state roads are flooded or water-damaged throughout the basin, making travel tricky, if not treacherous.

Strong winds routinely whip up waves that splash up and over riprap, across N.D. Highway 57 south of the city of Devils Lake.

“Flaggers and pilot cars are out there,” said Wade Swenson, NDDOT’s Devils Lake district engineer. “Damage is occurring, especially on windy days. Riprap is taking a beating.”

NDDOT just started an emergency road repair project along N.D. 57, just north of the Spirit Lake Casino, to replace riprap and to fill in spots where the rising lake water has washed away the road base. In several areas, water has risen past the point of riprap, moving ever closer to road surfaces.

NDDOT is planning other major road repair/raise projects in the Devils Lake Basin over the next two years, to raise all state routes to an elevation of 1,460 feet above sea level.

Later this month, crews will start a $42 million project to road N.D. Highway 20 – in the Spring Lake/Tokio area. It’s now at 1,452.5 feet.

In July, it will launch a two-year, $34 million project to raise N.D. Highway 57 from Fort Totten, N.D., to just north of the casino.

A third project is raising Highway 20 from about the intersection of Highway 57 north to the levee that protects the city of Devils Lake, including Acorn Ridge.

Sometime in the fall, NDDOT will bid two other road raise projects, along North Dakota, Highway 19 and U.S. 281, that will begin in 2011.

It’s difficult to keep track of all of the miles of closed or water-damaged county and township roads, Ramsey County Highway Superintendent Kevin Fieldsend.

“We’ve got quite a few closed because they’re inundated,” he said, “and we’ve got roads that are closed because the roadbed is just so soft that vehicles can’t get through. Not farm trucks. Not emergency vehicles. Some are to the point where 4-wheel-drive vehicles are having trouble.”

“It’s critical, and it’s getting worse,” said Garry Vick, chief of the Devils Lake Rural Fire Department, which covers 13 townships and about 400 square miles.

The worst areas of Ramsey County are within one-half mile of the Devils Lake shoreline, south of Churchs Ferry, and the Webster/Rohrville area northeast of the city of Devils Lake, according to Fieldsend.

The fire department recently moved one of its pumpers from Crary, N.D., to a farmstead about 10 miles east of Webster because blocked or flooded roads are adding distance and time to emergency routes.

“In some areas, we’re traveling 24 or 25 miles to get to an emergency instead of 7 or 8 miles, all because of water problems,” Vick said.

Snyder said she receives two to three road closings each day from almost all six counties in the basin. Often, a route that is open one day might have water on the road the next. Road and bridge washouts are common, too.

“We’re being proactive, but it’s a challenge. We call it creative dispatching,” she said.

Sometimes, that’s not enough.

“You get rolling down the road and you see smoke from a farmstead, but you can’t get there, and you have to watch the building burn,” Vick said. “It’s a real helpless feeling.”

Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.