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In a frozen ocean of floodwater, a tiny town becomes an island

April 10, 1997

WILD RICE, N.D. (AP) _ In their sandbagged house, a lone islet on a frozen prairie, the Desotel family listens to a distant baseball game, stoic holdouts in a silent ocean of ice and water.

``All we can do is sit here and watch,″ said Bill Desotel, one of less than a dozen residents of Wild Rice, watching an alligator-sized ice chunk float by in what is normally his yard.

Once there was a town here _ a community with a turn-of-the-century population rivaling that of Fargo, six miles north. But people moved away, and only a tavern and a smattering of homes remain.

Now those too are disappearing inch after agonizing inch under the shallow, flooding waters of the river that gave this one-street prairie community its name.

Like so many towns along the Red River Valley, which separates North Dakota from Minnesota, Wild Rice is trapped between a small river already overflowing and a bigger one, the Red, preparing to do so.

``Right now, the Red and the Wild Rice are one river. And we’re the island in the middle,″ Desotel said. He was born in this house, built by his French-Canadian grandfather 80 years ago.

So for residents of these places, the threat encircles. Flooding can come from one river, from the other, or sheet its way slowly across the frozen plain. On Tuesday it came from the south, Wednesday from the west.

``You have to watch both ways,″ said Bruce Schauer, co-manager of the Wild Rice Bar & Grill, the only tavern _ and only business _ in town.

``I look out on the field and I see it coming closer and closer,″ Schauer said, standing in his darkened establishment after hauling out the jukebox and all of the video games. ``It’s like sitting and watching the paint dry _ in reverse.″

Schauer called radio stations Wednesday morning, offering free meals to anyone who’d help bag sand. But, faced with copious amounts of water, he gave up at midafternoon and closed at about the time happy hour usually brings farmers and construction workers from all around.

Since French Canadians came southwest from Quebec and settled here in 1872, followed by Norwegians and Scots, the Wild Rice River _ along with its occasional overflow _ has been a part of life.

But even when it loped over its banks, it never came this far into town in this volume.

``We’ve never sandbagged _ not even in ’69,″ said Lou Desotel, Bill’s wife, looking out her living-room window into what could have passed for beachfront property. She keeps 8mm home movies of the 1969 flood.

By Wednesday, her son, Tommy, and two of his construction-worker colleagues had packed 800 bags with sand and deployed them around the property.

Wild Rice, the town, is different today than it was when Desotel forefathers first got here. Fargo’s sprawl is encroaching from the north. The old railroad tracks that once kept water in check have been dug out, and most everything else is gone _ the hotel, the general stores, the grain elevator, even the post office the Desotels once operated.

But still they stay. It is home. And across eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, people like the Desotels watch the slow-motion waters move toward them and wonder how high it will go.

And, like many residents of this flood-weary patch of prairie, the sparse citizenry is shucking the bad and looking for the good inside.

``If I need sandbags next year, I can just say I live on the Red River,″ said Mrs. Desotel, winking.

``This time, it’s coming to me.″

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