In Red River Valley, prospect of back-to-back flood fights overwhelms many homeowners
Linda Briggs will never forget the sound.
She awoke at 2 a.m. that April night to hear water lapping - as if she were in a cabin by a lake.
But Briggs and her husband, Wesley, were in their farm house five miles from the Sheyenne River.
Briggs got up and ran to the windows on all four sides of their house.
"Everywhere I looked, there was water," Briggs said.
That was April 21, 2009. In the marathon days that followed, the Briggses battled overland flooding on their farm southeast of Kindred, N.D. They built sandbag dikes to protect a home that had never flooded in the previous 23 years, watched their outbuildings fill with water and eventually took out a loan to pay for damage to their property.
They're still paying off the loan. Now it looks like the area could flood again.
"The whole flood stuff is very wearing," Briggs said. "It's the uncertainty of not knowing what's coming and what's going to happen. And it's not just us. There's hundreds of people in the area who don't know what to expect."
Many throughout the region seem to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of yet another flood fight less than a year after floodwaters threatened people and homes in the Red River Valley and throughout much of North Dakota. Some have reported feeling anxious, depressed and fatigued weeks before they've touched their first sandbag.
"I think we are still trying to deal with the ramifications from last year's flood," said Kit O'Neill, a clinical psychologist and disaster mental health manager for the American Red Cross relief effort in Fargo. "There's a lot of anxiety. People seem to be dreading the possibility of another flood. It's sad to see people not excited about spring coming, but instead dreading the snowmelt and the return of spring because of the fear of what that will result in."
In preparation for another major disaster, the Red Cross has partnered with the Red River Resilience Group of mental health leaders who formed last year to address flood-related mental health concerns, O'Neill said. Their goal: to make sure mental health support is available at every stage if flooding reoccurs.
"It reminds me a lot of the post-traumatic stress syndrome," said the Rev. Steve Sellers, dean at Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo. "It's like people are emotionally reliving the scare we had last year. And there's this resignation that the very worst thing that could happen is going to happen."
While flood stress alone might not be enough to send most people to seek professional help, it can amplify problems in those who already struggle with anxiety, depression or addiction, said John Ulven, a MeritCare psychologist.
Dwayne and Teresia Schells' split-level home still bears damage from last year's flood. The walls of their entryway consist of plastic-covered insulation. Their basement is gutted.
Their property in Stanley Township just south of Fargo has been this way for months. Their children and grandkids weren't able to spend the traditional Christmas at their home because it was in too much disarray, Dwayne said.
He estimates their property sustained about $118,000 in damage. And his annoyance over their situation is mounting.
The Schells' house is on a buyout list, but they're still waiting for Congress to appropriate more money. Meanwhile, Dwayne believes he's unfairly paying taxes on a damaged house he can't sell.
Dwayne said they've considered just walking away from their home, but they couldn't afford paying for two house payments.
"The thought was to live happily ever after here, but now I don't know," said the 62-year-old sales representative. "My wife's depressed and down in the dumps. It's disheartening. You don't know who to talk to, and everyone just gives you the runaround."
MeritCare's Ulven said this delayed disillusionment is normal. Research has found we go through four phases after a disaster:
* Heroic: This immediate, adrenaline-charged time is when people rally together to prevent loss of lives and property. This stage can last anywhere from right after the impact to a week afterward.
* Honeymoon: People experience euphoria and gratitude over survival. Hopes for quick recovery run high. This period can last up to six months.
* Disillusionment: Community pride sours with the realities of paperwork and recovery delays. Feelings of anger, depression, self-doubt, blame and grief arise and linger from several months to more than a year.
* Reconstruction: Normal functioning returns. "Grand Forks can be a model of this," Ulven said. "The city did eventually come together on both sides and put together a plan to protect the city. Now the community is reaping the rewards of that."
It's possible, Ulven said, that some area residents are in the disillusionment stage, even while their nervous systems are simultaneously ramping up for another "heroic" response to a potential flood.
Yet another factor can be the "anniversary effect," our tendency to subconsciously revisit the trauma on the anniversary of a loss or disaster. Typical reactions to the anniversary effect may include bad dreams, feelings of loss, frustration, anxiety, intrusive thoughts about past experiences and use of dark humor about the event, Ulven said.
Experts: Worry normal
The good news: Those feelings are natural. The nervous system is wired to help us spring into action if potential danger lurks. And so it's normal for people to feel upset and restless when they are exposed to media reports or water-cooler talk about another possible flood.
"This is our time to recognize our nervous systems are sounding an alarm and that this is a normal and healthy process that was designed to protect ourselves and the ones we love," Ulven said. "And we're going to be uncomfortable for a while, so we need to be kinder and gentler to ourselves and our neighbors when we're feeling like this."
These jittery feelings can be especially unnerving in this region, dominated by people of stoic, Germanic-Scandinavian heritage.
"We repress how we feel. If we're depressed, it means something is wrong and, if we're too happy, something is wrong," Ulven said. "We live in this very narrow bandwidth of emotion. Instead of saying we need to talk to others, we tend to internalize and think, 'I'm doing something wrong. I need to correct this.' "
The problem is when people try to deny or mute the nervous system's natural response by abusing alcohol, overeating or doing other unhealthy behaviors, Ulven said.
People need to use their common sense. They shouldn't "over-pathologize" feeling jittery or down, but they need to seek help if those feelings become overwhelming, said Andrew McLean, medical director of Southeast Human Services in Fargo.
"Certainly, as more people talk about it ... the issue of reaching out for help is seen as more courageous as opposed to weakness," McLean said.
And in the end, McLean counsels people to put it all in perspective. "The good news is we've been through this before," he said, "and we're confident in our competence to get through this again."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525