Sandbagging contines as Red River falls

Monday, March 30, 2009
Elaine Thompson ~ Associated Press
Workers struggle to pull an outlet hose for a pump over a dike Sunday at Oak Grove Lutheran school in Fargo, N.D.

FARGO, N.D. -- Weary residents of this sandbagged city came together in churches Sunday, counting their blessings that the Red River finally stopped rising and praying the levees would hold back its wrath. A brief levee break that swamped a school provided a warning of the kind of threat that still hangs over them in the days ahead.

Sunday church services in Fargo took on greater significance as people gathered after a week of round-the clock sandbagging.

"At a time like this, we need to call on God's providential assistance," said the Rev. Bob Ona, pastor of Fargo's First Assembly of God church. "All of you have been heroic in your efforts. All of you have been pushed past the wall of weariness, exhaustion and numerous frustrations in order to do the right thing -- help people in the name of the Lord."

The Red River continued its slow retreat Sunday after cresting a day earlier, dropping below record level to 39.92 feet -- still nearly 22 feet above flood stage. The river may fluctuate up to a foot and remain at dangerous levels for a week, testing the long line of sandbag levees that residents hastily constructed last week.

Fargo faces another test this week as a storm with up to a half-foot of snow and powerful wind gusts that could send large waves crashing into and over the already-stressed levees.

The sandbag effort resumed Sunday as helicopters began dropping 11 one-ton sandbags into the river to deflect its current and keep it from eroding vulnerable areas of the dike system.

The aerial effort also included an unmanned Predator drone used to watch flood patterns and ice floes and provide high-definition information to teams on the ground. North Dakota has more than 2,400 National Guard troops engaged in the flood fight across the state.

The helicopter sandbag effort was focused on an area of the river that put another scare into the city during the night when water burst through a levee and submerged a Lutheran school campus.

Oak Grove Lutheran principal Morgan Forness said city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Guard unsuccessfully tried to contain the gushing water after a floodwall buckled around 1:30 a.m. The water kept spreading and "we couldn't contain it. ... It's inundating all of the buildings," Forness said.

"The campus is basically devastated. They fought the good fight. They lost, and there's nothing wrong with that," Mayor Dennis Walaker said. "Those things will continue to happen. I guarantee it."

Crews largely contained the flooding to the campus, preventing more widespread damage in nearby areas. School officials also frantically raced to rescue tortoises, birds, iguanas and snakes kept at the school as part of its science program, while pumping out most of the water in the buildings within 12 hours.

The flooding at the campus -- heavily damaged in the region's 1997 flood -- represented the type of disaster that could crop up in Fargo throughout the week, with Walaker calling it a "wakeup call" for the city.

"The main event is right now, while we have this higher water. And it ain't over till it's over," said U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., comparing the need for vigilance until the very end to the University of North Dakota's stunning, last-second loss in the hockey playoffs the night before. "And it ain't gonna be over until several days from now."

The levee watch in Fargo was one of several fronts in the fight against the Red River. Public works officials were closely monitoring the situation to make sure that water and sewer systems remain safe and that raw sewage doesn't back up into homes. Flooding statewide was blamed for two deaths, in central and western North Dakota, in what health officials said were apparent heart attacks brought on by flood-prevention exertions.

Moorhead, a city of 30,000 directly across the river in Minnesota, also was fighting to hold back the river. A husband and wife had to be rescued by boat from their home just south of the city after they became trapped on the second floor, said Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said he was concerned but still optimistic about how long his city's dike could last against the pressure of the river water. "Some of us aren't sure how strong they might be," he said. "We have a long way to go."

The flood was caused by an enormous winter snowfall that melted and combined with more precipitation to send the river to record levels. The river flows from south to north through the tabletop terrain of North Dakota, providing few opportunities to drain.

"The place is so flat," said John Gulliver, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota. "It is totally flat, so there's really no place for the water to go because it can't leave that quickly. So it just keeps backing up like a bathtub with a slow drain."

Triumph Lutheran Brethren Church held its Sunday services at a Ramada hotel to accommodate all the people from other churches that canceled worship because of the flood. They pared down the service -- no high-tech PowerPoint presentations, no food, no Sunday school. "Just prayer, some old hymns everybody knows, and being together," said church member Tami Crist.

"We can sit back and know that we've done what we can do. Now God's going to do what he can do," she said.

The pastor at the Assemblies of God church said now was the time to turn to spirituality for hope and not obsess about material possessions. After a week in which the church used its buses to shuttle people to feverish sandbagging efforts, Ona told the congregation that "we have done everything we can do, humanly speaking."

"We don't feel we deserve any awards or plaques for what we did," he added. "We are a church. This is what we do."


Associated Press Writers Carson Walker, Nate Jenkins and Scott Bauer contributed to this report.


On the Net:

Red River at Fargo water levels: http://sn.im/enwgc

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