Just over one week ago, FirstLink Volunteer Coordinator Sara Lepp sat at a computer in Sandbag Central, surrounded by card tables covered in clipboards, ballpoint pens, and loose sand. Lepp was ready to register sandbag volunteers, but there were only a few trickling in the doors of the City of Fargo’s Solid Waste Building on Mar. 9. Only one spider machine was running and the other 12-funnel machine capable of producing 5,000 sandbags an hour was silent. An army of shovels lay unused against a pile of sand. An elderly couple stood behind a table of gloves, water bottles, and boxes of assorted chips, quietly waiting for more volunteers to arrive.
What a difference one week and over 10 feet of water can make.
Tuesday, Mar. 16, Sandbag Central was bustling with activity. Throngs of volunteers in old sweatshirts and jeans scooped sand with their shovels over and over again into the white and yellow sandbags. Bulldozers beeped and scooted back and forth across the cement floor with loads of sand to feed the now constantly running spider machines. The table of supplies was now covered with sand-stained brown gloves, empty water bottles, and open bags of chips.
The National Weather Service announced Sunday, Mar. 14, that the Red River in Fargo-Moorhead will reach 38 feet on Mar. 21, 10 feet more than what the NWS predicted just two days earlier. While the cities of Fargo and Moorhead have been anticipating and planning for another spring flood since last year’s record crest of 40.84 feet, a record eight-day thaw in early March has accelerated the river’s rise faster than anyone expected. Once again, the Fargo-Moorhead community has about a week’s time to hold back the rising Red.
Lepp said Sandbag Central has been in full force since the higher crest was announced and especially busy Mar. 16, the day Concordia cancelled classes and area high schools were allowed to sandbag with a parent’s permission. With the high volunteer turnout, Lepp expected Fargo to have reached its one million filled sandbags goal by Mar. 17, which it did. Moorhead reached its goal of 300,000 sandbags on Mar. 15, but plans to continue making bags throughout the week.
“It’s been great here,” she said. “Yesterday we had over 900 people, which is double what our biggest day was before.”
The rush to protect Fargo-Moorhead from the Red River is very reminiscent of last spring, Lepp said, when the number of volunteers and panic level grew with each new prediction announced by the NWS.
“It was busy, but organized chaos,” she said. “We got it handled, so hopefully we can do that again this year.”
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker’s city hall office is covered with scores of reminders of last year’s flood. His walls are covered with framed photographs and news stories of the community’s fight against the Red River and boxes of flood memorabilia are spread across the floor. A partially rolled “United We Sand” poster. A framed article from “The Forum” featuring a side profile of Walaker’s determined face, entitled “Fearless leader.” A large photo of a line of sandbaggers standing on an uncompleted dike, their faces and clothes streaked with wet sand and the icy gray water of the Red in the background.
Walaker’s massive desk holds the reminders of this year’s flood. It is covered with piles of papers containing information all too familiar to someone who has experienced 10 significant floods since 1974 and led the flood fight against the raging Red just one year ago.
“It’s hard to keep everything organized,” Walaker said as he scrawled his signature in blue ink on several documents. “There’s a certain amount of being overcome by everything. But there are concerns, of course. We do not want to lose.”
Walaker said he understands that there are lot of people in the community who are scared, but he tried to maintain a calm demeanor and not panic anyone.
“I do fully understand the flooding as well as anybody,” he said, “And panicking doesn’t resolve anything.”
Concordia students know panicking doesn’t resolve anything, but hard work does. Concordia students took the day off from class on Mar. 16 to fill sandbags, build and raise dikes, and save homes. Fargo-Moorhead relied heavily on the aid of college students last spring, and since NDSU and MSUM students had just begun their spring break when the higher crest was announced this year, Cobbers were in even greater demand to assist with the flood fight this time around.
Junior Emily Ilse spent the day all Concordia classes were cancelled building a dike in economics Professor Thomas Hiestand’s neighborhood in South Fargo. Ilse said it feels like sandbagging never left and the sight of semis carting full loads of sandbags seem so familiar, but she didn’t expect to be in the same position as last year.
“I didn’t think we would be missing school with all of the early preparation,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be this bad, this fast.”
Junior Beth Mertes, who sandbagged in the same South Fargo neighborhood with Ilse, agreed.
“It’s totally déjà vu,” she said.
For Junior Drew Schultz, sandbagging was a new experience. Schultz transferred to Concordia from St. John’s University and wasn’t around for the Red River flood last spring.
“I had no idea what to expect,” he said. “It was definitely eye-opening. I can’t imagine what it was like last year.”
Schultz sandbagged with fellow members of the Concordia football team on Rivershore Drive in south Moorhead. He said they completed 8-9 rows on the dike, and while he will probably be sore the following day, he didn’t think about the physical effort when he was volunteering. The radio was turned up and everyone was working together, which made for a pretty good time, he said.
Ilse said she is sore after returning to the sandbagging routine and her arms aren’t used to the hauling the hefty bags yet. But she feels it is all worth it after seeing the homeowners’ reaction to the flood fighting volunteers.
“Everyone is so nice,” she said. “They are all so thankful.”