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Flood increased Fargo-Moorhead liquor sales

James Schaefer, manager of Main Liquors in Fargo, restocks vodka Thursday. He says his store had three times the usual sales of beer and liquor during the height of the region's flood fight last week. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

In the debate over which businesses are essential or nonessential during an emergency, many local liquor stores and bars had no doubt about where they fell during the Red River flood threat.

"It's been like New Year's Eve," said Andy Urton, manning the counter at Village West Liquors, where he rang up $4,000 in sales in the first two hours he was open one recent day, as people lined up to buy beer by the case to fuel sandbagging efforts or 1.75-liter bottles of vodka to ease the aches and stress of flood preparation.

Self-medication with alcohol in crises worries mental health experts, who say it can lead to long-term problems. But in an Upper Plains state where drinking is a popular pastime during the long, cold winters, it only makes sense to some residents.

"You've got to do it," said Brian Jorgensen, 39. "You kind of hurt at the end of the day."

At Main Liquors in West Fargo, manager James Shaffer said liquor and beer flowed out steadily in the days before the Red River crested and receded without widespread damage. Last Friday night, they closed three hours early, at 10 p.m., because of the flood emergency, but still did triple a usual Friday's business.

Dr. Andrew McLean, medical director of North Dakota's Department of Human Services, monitored mental health issues as the state's largest city responded to record-high, menacing river levels.

"Some people have relied on that (alcohol) as a coping strategy, and other people have been quite good about how they have coped," McLean said Wednesday. "The problem tends to come up when the adrenaline wears off."

He said some people who had quit smoking years ago have been lighting up cigarettes in recent days, and drinking is a continuing concern in a region with a prevalence of alcohol abuse.

A federal government report last year found that North Dakota ranked in the nation's top 10 states on alcohol abuse issues that included underage drinking, binge drinking, and alcohol dependence. It was in the top five for rates of drunken driving, based on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Local authorities said there weren't many incidents of drunken driving arrests during the flood emergency except, notably, a woman arrested while trying to drive her van over a levee.

"If they are drinking, I think they're probably staying in their homes," said Jim Thoreson, a Cass County sheriff's chief deputy.

The New Orleans area continues to see increased alcohol and other substance-abuse problems blamed on the Hurricane Katrina disaster nearly four years ago, when people ratcheted up their reliance on booze, prescribed anti-anxiety drugs and illegal drugs.

"Alcohol can alleviate some of the stress," said Dr. Howard Osofksy, psychiatry chairman for the Louisiana State University's Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. "When it is used beyond moderation, people who already have problems can have more difficulties, so what's used to help relieve the stress can be problematic in its own right."

McLean urged Fargo residents to talk to each other about what they're feeling.

"This is an abnormal situation," he said. "And it's very helpful to know that you're not the only one with these same sorts of issues."

For Kevin Schuldheisz, sipping a tall beer with a friend at the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant bar Tuesday was a good break after a string of long days spent sandbagging, including at two friends' homes that nevertheless got flood damage.

"This is relaxing," he said. "It's nice."