Volunteers face cold, snowy weather to fight flood watersby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
What is it like to volunteer to spend 12 or 16-hour days outside sandbagging in the snow and ice? In 1997, kids and students of all ages saved the cities of Fargo and Moorhead. Why do they show up?
Fargo, N.D. — The National Weather Service reports that the Red River will reach a new record crest by the weekend. The river will hit an all-time high of 41 feet above flood stage in Fargo by early Saturday afternoon. That's a foot-and-a-half above the previous record set during the 1997 floods.
The updated crest level is partly because of additional precipitation. Fargo-Moorhead residents woke to a thick blanket of snow this morning. The snow and falling temperatures combined for a miserable day as thousands of people scrambled to finish dikes in preparation for Saturday's crest.
In many neighborhoods this morning, snowdrifts covered the piles of sandbags filled by volunteers last night.
Several college students were thumping sandbags on the ground to break up the frozen sand so the bags could be used. Some had to be discarded. others were loaded on trailers bound for homes along the nearby Red River.
Concordia College student Clara Wreitz wore soggy sweatpants, her cheeks were red from the cold wind and snow, but she was smiling as she trudged through the snow with a sandbag in each hand. Wreitz goes to school in Moorhead but lives in Northfield Minnesota. She said helping with the flood fight was an easy choice.
"I think it's a huge sense of community here," Wreitz said. "None of us are from here but you can see in the peoples faces how much they need this help. A lot of our teachers are dealing with the flooding too. I think almost every student I've known at Concordia has gone out at least once."
A few blocks away, about 150 volunteers are helping build a new sandbag dike. Moorhead orchestra teacher Brian Cole is in line waiting for sandbags. He's been seeing students in every sand bag line.
"It's just so affirming as a teacher and a parent and somebody who's lived in the community a while to know these kids are giving from their heart," Cole said. "They're not going to get anything. There's not a paycheck waiting for them. There's no promotion waiting for them. They're doing this because they felt a call and I know I speak for many when I say we are so grateful for what they've given us."
Cole said the students singing and laughing as they pass sandbags inspire everyone else.
"I'm an old man and I'm feeling parts of my body ache that haven't ached for a long time," Cole said. "And it's cold and windy but you really forget about that when you think about the homeowners who's homes we're trying to save, and the city we're trying to save. You really forget about those personal pains."
These volunteers are building a sandbag dike to hold back waters creeping up interstate 94 and threatening to flow into a south Moorhead neighborhood.
The man supervising this operation is from Eden Prairie. Mike Neuharth runs a construction business and he brought two skid steer loaders and two of his kids.
"I'm in the construction business and it's been really tough," Neuharth said. "I didn't have nothing going and I felt a calling."
Neuharth said people have offered to pay him, but that's not why he's here.
"Guy opened his wallet yesterday, what can I do to help you. The load of sand just came. He's 65 years old, had a heart condition," Neuharth said. "No rewards, the lord will decide everything. It's not the goodness of what you do, it's the goodness of how you feel. And we feel like we're making a difference. If I wasn't making a difference, we'd of went home. "
Neuharth said he plans to stay at least a couple more days.
A few hundred feet from this sandbag dike in the making is First Presbyterian Church where volunteers went to warm up. Pastor Nancy Emerson stands in the blowing snow watching the sandbags be moved into place. This week she's been visiting parishioners who live along the river and are very anxious about losing their homes.
"But we also have the attitude that what happens will happen and we'll be there for each other no matter what," Emerson said. "That's the best of who we are, we promise to walk with each other. We trust that we will be okay. We know people will be with us for the long haul."
Fargo and Moorhead officials say they will need all the help they can get over the next 48 hours to prepare for what is almost certain to be a record high flood crest on Saturday.
- All Things Considered, 03/25/2009, 4:45 p.m.