Like letters to a friend, the feelings expressed in a survey of drought-weary retailers reveal the hurt, despair and uncertainty gripping businesses as they struggle to survive the worst drought in decades.

"I love my town and the people in it, but if this continues, we are not going to be able to afford to live here," a Cavalier County retailer wrote in response to a state Tax Department survey on the drought.As the hot weather sucked the life from income-producing wheat fields and pastures across the state, it dried up sales for many store owners who deal with farmers, the surveys show.

"Some days you wonder if it's worth turning on the lights," said a Williams County business owner. "You always wonder if Tom, Dick or Harry will still be farming next year. By the same token, we wonder if we'll still be here."

"The way our books are looking at this time, we are in the red and afraid of the long winter," said a Dickey County business owner.

The Tax Department mailed surveys to 700 retail businesses July 27, trying to measure how much state revenues might decline because of the drought. About 280 businesses returned the questionnaires by Aug. 10.

The numbers provide the evidence of the drought's effects - 64 percent of the respondents reported reduced sales from what the owners had expected.

Tax Commissioner Heidi Heitkamp agreed to make the surveys public, but excluded the names of the businesses and any sales figures. Respondents were promised confidentiality.

"It is just hard to see the hurt that is on these pages," she said. "It is hard to see the despair in the small towns."

One Barnes County business compared the state's economy to the Great Depression. "The dirty '80s have not left us, and I do not look for a big increase in sales for several years."

"It takes two years to get back to normal after a drought, in my opinion," wrote a Foster County retailer. "It is going to be a long, hard winter for all of us."

"We'll have to put all of our help on unemployment this fall, and I had to take a second job! We may have to refinance just to keep the doors open," wrote a Bottineau County businessman.

One business reported surviving tough times for years due to dry weather.

"By 1983, even our business was beginning to slow down," wrote the Williams County store owner. "Interesting note: One week in July 1983 grossed more than the whole month of July 1988."

"The drought is just another nail in the wooden box," said a Mountrail County business that has also been hit by hard times in the state's oil-producing sector.

There were many pleas for help.

"Some place along the line, someone is going to have to help us out," a Cavalier County business wrote. "If that doesn't happen, then you might, as it has been suggested, turn this area into a great national park."

A handful of businesses sympathized with the farmers, but said farmers always get bailed out of their problems.

"What about the small-business person? We never get help," a Burleigh County respondent wrote.

Three business owners used the surveys to write their companies' obituaries.

"Our sales will drop to zero very soon as we intend to close this business and seek employment in another state," one Grand Forks County retailer wrote.