Guard soldiers fight flood close to homeby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Thousands of National Guard troops and airmen are working around the clock as part of the flood fighting effort in the Red River Valley. Among them are several hundred Minnesota soldiers. They're watching the flood from several angles. But their helicopters are not in the air because of the late winter storm that's grounded flights until early Wednesday morning.
Moorhead, Minn. — The Ward Muscatell Kia dealership in Moorhead has a newfound military look to it, but not because they've started trying to sell Hummers.
The car lot is providing space to the military.
Camouflaged trucks and humvees sit alongside new cars up for sale in the parking lot.
Inside on one end of the long, wide service center garage, about a half dozen cars are under repair.
On the other end, three dozen Minnesota National Guard troops are camped out among the tool boxes and car lifts. Two huge military trucks filled with sandbags are ready to roll out the back overhead door.
"We're the first line of defense if the dike breaches," said Ray Pizarro, 36, of Moorhead.
He is among the soldiers who make up one of several quick response teams.
"Right now we're the quick reaction force," he said. "If the dike breaks we will respond to it and fix it before anything happens."
Flood waters are not threatening Pizarro's home, so a little more than a week ago when the opportunity to volunteer for flood duty came, Pizarro immediately traded life with his wife, two kids, two dogs and two cats for full-time soldiering.
"We're just waiting for the call," he said. "When the city needs us, we want to respond."
Many more guard troops are a few miles north of the car dealership at the Moorhead Armory.
The main drill floor area of the building is filled with sleeping cots. It's kept dark around the clock so off-duty soldiers can rest.
Nearly 700 Minnesota Guard troops and airmen are on flood duty in the Red River Valley. About four of every five of them have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. This deployment at home is closer to the Guard's traditional role.
Guard officials say they're working 12 hours on and 12 hours off patrolling dikes, directing traffic, evacuating citizens and securing neighborhoods.
Many of the soldiers have volunteered to help with the flood work. More than half are from the Red River Valley, including Nathan Ketterling, 23, who lives in Fargo.
"At first there were the sandbag sites to help keep the flow of it smooth" he said. "And then we went to quick response forces to help patrol the dikes. And if there is a breach in the dike we get called up in 10 or 15 minutes and quickly go out there and try to help fill it in."
The Minnesota troops brought a lot of equipment with them, more than 150 types of vehicles and eight helicopters.
At a briefing Monday at the Moorhead Armory, guard leaders on the ground in northwestern Minnesota told top brass fresh from a helicopter flight from St. Paul the effort is going well.
Captain Tim Sevcik of Zimmerman went through a county-by-county update.
"Really no major issues that we're tracking right now," he said, "especially with the water levels starting to go down here."
Closely listening was the Minnesota Guard's Chief of Staff Col. Wayne Hayes.
Hayes is in charge of Minnesota guard personnel. Until Monday's visit, Hayes had been keeping up with flood developments from an emergency operations center in St. Paul.
"Things are going very well," he said.
Hayes said the guard will have a major presence in the flood zone until the river recedes.
"We need to get the river back down to the normal permanent dike stage," he said. "Because the dikes in this kind of weather where you got cold, warm, cold warm and then the lapping of the water against them, you can erode a dike pretty quick."
The Blackhawk Helicoptor that brought Hayes and the other officials to Moorhead did not sit idle during their update meeting. Despite deteriorating weather it was quickly back in the air helping a local official check in on some bridges, roads and ice jams. The guard leaders ended up cutting their stay short as flying conditions worsened.
The guard says it's anxious to get back up in the air as soon as the weather breaks. The bird's- eye view from their helicopters gives them valuable insight as to where they're needed on the ground.