Small towns around rising Red fighting tooby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
The Red River has reached its first crest and is slowly subsiding in Fargo and Moorhead, but the river is still rising as it roars further north. People in places like Perley, Halstad and Shelly are still sandbagging and biting their fingernails. In their towns, the Red River isn't expected to crest for a few days.
Hendrum, Minn. — It's fairly busy at the Hendrum Civic Center. The police and fire departments are located here, and now it's the incident command center for the flood fight.
Whiteboards are dotted with Post-It notes outlining who's responsible for what. Two phones ring nonstop.
But they say it was a lot busier on Sunday. Curt Johannsen has been Hendrum's mayor, since January. He said the day started out fine.
"The water was barely touching our dike," Johannsen said. "We thought we'd have a quiet day. We had 32,000 sandbags in reserve, we had all the people in rural communities covered, we were just sort of waiting for the water, we went to church. [We] came back to check water levels, that's when it just spiked. Water rose about four to five feet."
The Red River moved toward town, spreading across the fields from its banks a mile away. Instead of lapping at the foot of the dikes, it was maybe six inches from the top, and this was several days before the river was supposed to crest here.
Mike Smart is the incident commander, a member of both the police and fire departments.
"The Weather Service had air up trying to find out what exactly was going on," Smart said. "Early evening they said seven major ice jams on [the] main stem of Red between here and Nielsville, on the bridges and cul-de-sacs and curves that backed water in on us."
The river is like a snake here as it twists through the rich farmland. There are no straight sections, so ice and tree trunks can jam up against bridges and in the bends of the river.
The folks in Hendrum put out a call for volunteers, and people came from all over. They worked into the night, piling sandbags on the dike on the southwest side of town, just two blocks from the fire hall. The dike protects the town from the river that's usually a mile away. But stand on the dike now and you're facing icy water four feet deep.
Four men paced around, waiting for sandbags. David Pagel lives in Fargo.
"We're high and dry in Fargo, so we drove up Saturday, went home Saturday night late, came back Sunday, worked until 1 a.m.," Pagel said. "Got good sleep last night, had peanut butter toast this morning, so we're ready to rock."
The other side of town is where the threat usually lies. The Wild Rice River is even closer, and it's also overflowing its banks. But the water has started to fall now, and the main worry is more ice dams on the Red.
A blip on the horizon is a grain elevator in the next town. It's Perley, and Hendrum's mayor said the folks there are facing the same challenges.
The National Guard has two big trucks here to carry sandbags and people where they're needed. The Army Corps of Engineers stops by every few days, and there's a Homeland Security staffer who checks in. But basically, this town is taking care of itself and the farms around it.
Mayor Curt Johannsen borrows a truck to check on things.
A mile west of town, we have to stop far short of a bridge over the Red River, because the river is rushing over the road, two feet deep.
But it's surprisingly busy at this low point in the flat landscape.
Volunteers are sandbagging at the Guttormson farm. They're getting in by boat and by National Guard truck.
Another little boat is carrying three guys from the local electric coop. They're trying to figure out why the farm has lost its power.
A helicopter hovers overhead, presumably looking for ice dams.
Norman County Sheriff's Deputy Ben Fall is in his truck watching the traffic. He said one family left their farm by canoe.
"I believe it took them just over an hour," Fall said. "They were moving pretty good out here with the flow of the river, and of course the river's widened across its banks, and has quite a current even across the fields."
But only a handful of people have been forced to leave their homes. Mayor Curt Johannsen said people around here are good at taking care of themselves, and each other.
"We have a call list going, and we're constantly checking up on people every day," he said. "We have grocery runs and medication runs to make sure everyone's getting what they need."
The kids seem to have plenty of energy for filling sandbags. So whenever the crest of the Red reaches Hendrum, they'll be ready.
- Morning Edition, 03/31/2009, 7:25 a.m.