Sandbags, sump pumps and weary camaraderie: a Fargo notebook

Residents gather on a levee to watch National Guard Blackhawk helicopters drop sandbags in Fargo on Sunday.
REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson
Media and residents gather on a levee in Fargo to watch National Guard Blackhawk helicopters drop giant sandbags.

FARGO, N.D. — My rank stupidity might have been the funniest thing Specialist Ted Werre encountered all week. A 21-year-old National Guardsman from Bowman, N.D., he had been in Fargo for a week — first building the dike we were standing in front of to a height of 43 feet, and then patrolling it for leaks, one muddy, frigid circuit after another.

We were standing at the intersection of two temporary levees located about a mile and a half north of downtown Fargo and way, way too close to the Red River. Made out of sandbags, one restrained a churning lagoon of ice covering the El Zagal Golf Course to the south. The other was a clay berm snaking north through a middle-class neighborhood to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

I had asked who taught Werre to build dikes.

“Training?” he cackled, stopping dead in several inches of mud. “Training?” The mud made a slurping sound as it formed a seal around his boots.

Sgt. First Class Joshua Roller was cracking up, too, although the look he shot Werre back seemed equally clear: “Don’t make fun of the reporter.”

“Face the bags away from the river, ties down,” Werre explained. “Pyramid-style: Four, three, two, one.”

They stopped laughing. Come to think of it, this particular dike had been a bear.

The trouble with frozen sand
The sand was malleable when civilian volunteers poured it into bags at the city-owned warehouse the guardsmen referred to as Sandbag City. “But they froze on the trucks before we could use them,” Werre said. “We had to throw them on the ground to try to break them up.” 

Frozen solid, a stack of sandbags isn’t much more effective than a stack of frozen turkeys, one the men explained. So you have to make sure they overlap, and then overlap some more.

They got it to 43 feet, the height of the projected crest, on Friday afternoon and almost relaxed. But then Saturday, sometime after the river actually crested at 40.8 feet and right before Werre’s and Roller’s unit was to go off duty, it started to leak.

Running at up to 16 miles an hour, nearly four times its usual speed, the Red River put a lot of pressure on the dike. The sandbags themselves held firm, but a crust of ice formed underneath, creating a channel under the wall. “The water forces itself in there because it’s looking to go somewhere,” explained Roller.

Speedy response from Quick Reaction Force
The guards called for one of the 11 Quick Reaction Forces dispersed throughout Fargo and Moorhead and within minutes the site was swarming with people. They dug out the ice and put up a smaller wall at the base of the first, four bags high and three bags wide.

Then they extended the clay dike to the north all the way down the block for good measure, squeezing heavy machinery down the narrow ribbon of street not covered by the earthen wall. It took just half an hour to patch the first dike and extend the second half a block. When they were done, there was still a slow leak — so the city hauled in three giant diesel-powered pumps to send the water back over the levee.

The trunks of the trees jutting up out of the water on other side were ringed by collars of ice that froze there, marking the water’s high point. It receded nearly a foot by the following afternoon, but the failure of the dikes remains a very real threat.

****

Who knew the lowly sandbag was such a high-tech item? I certainly didn’t, not before Bloomberg, one of the news organizations I work for as a freelance journalist, asked me to cover the flood in Fargo. Fill, stack, and hope gravity does the rest, I assumed.

Garden-variety sandbags are just one of the ways to fight flood waters. Among those who lived through the 1997 flood and this one, there’s controversy whether any of the high-tech improvements really are progress.

Friday night, as the water pushed past its previous record level, 40.1 feet in 1897, other guardsmen and workers for the Army Corps of Engineers were putting up a taller, more imposing sand wall in a ritzy subdivision in the city’s River Drive South neighborhood. It looked like the sandbag levees and sump pumps in the backyards of 60-plus expensive homes might be engulfed. In less than 24 hours, workers erected 14 miles of so-called contingency dike, the name used for a secondary barrier that protects the rest of a neighborhood when frontline defenses fail.

The wall was relatively quick to put up because it’s made, essentially, of a long line of interlocking sandboxes made by a Louisiana company called Hesco. Each wire cube is a couple of feet square with a nylon liner. You just pop them open and fill them with a Bobcat. Put one wall atop another and the weight compounds their effectiveness.

Justin Thompson walks on a leaking, frozen sandbag dike
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Justin Thompson walks on a leaking, frozen sandbag dike as he carries water on Sunday to prime a pump to remove overland flood water from around his uncle’s house.

Hot and cold on Hescos
The Hescos, as people quickly dub them, were used in floods in New Orleans and Iowa and are enjoying some popularity as protective perimeters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officials in Fargo waxed hot and cold and hot again on them, at first so enthusiastic they called every state they could find that had used them and asked for dozens of miles more.

That was followed by a period of concern when it appeared that the Hescos might leak when placed on frozen ground, which was followed by another honeymoon when that risk turned out to be abated by placing a row or two of the old-fashioned kind of sandbags at the base.

The top of the swing set in United pilot Jeff Laven’s backyard was visible about 50 feet the other side of his wall of Hescos. In 1997, Fargo gave up for lost the land where his new subdivision, Timberline, was built.

“This whole area was sacrificed then,” he said. “I’m staying.”

The water on the other side of the sand wall a few yard from his back door is chest-deep, and by the time the river started to recede Saturday Laven and his brother-in-law had been alternating four-hour shifts for six days, taking turns sleeping and running a sump pump back over the dike.

The two men are punch-drunk, but cheerful. “As long as these hold and don’t bust open, we’re good,” Laven said.

****

Bursting isn’t the problem with dikes. Witness the permanent steel wall built behind Oak Grove Lutheran School’s expansive Fargo campus after the 1997 flood. The wall held just fine, but at about 1:15 Sunday morning churning water curling around a bend in the northbound river chewed a hole under the barrier and sent a geyser 4 feet high shooting into the basement of one of the buildings.

School staff and parents fought the water for two hours before evacuating the entire campus. Steam ducts connected the swamped building to some of the others, so putting a dike up around the affected part wouldn’t save the rest of the campus. A gymnasium with a new wooden floor and a three-month-old, $10 million performing-arts center were at risk.

The ultimate sandbag
The next morning city engineers decided to test the ultimate sandbag: Shortly after 9 a.m. a Blackhawk helicopter swooped down on the school, a one-ton pouch of sand swinging from it on a cable. As the helicopter slowed, the “sand bucket” steadied and the crew lowered it into place. It took 11 of the giant sandbags, but eventually the leak was staunched.

As the last of the Blackhawks flew into view, Oak Grove parent Dawn Robson motioned at it. “That’s what’s flying in for me, is hope,” she said. “It’s just a surreal and amazing thing to be going through.”

****

As the Red River neared historic levels, people poured into Fargo from neighboring communities, from the Twin Cities and beyond, looking to fill sandbags. Illuminated billboards told the visitors which bagging facilities needed help, and which were out of sand — or room for volunteers to work.

City trucks circulated, dropping mounds of sand in random intersections. Some people took turns holding the bags and shoveling; some rigged up fancier systems. Among the most low-tech but effective: pieces of plywood paneling set up on an angle like giant bean-bag toss targets. Thrust through holes cut in them, orange traffic cones with the points cut off became perfect funnels. Seniors and small children could sit and hold bags while the more able-bodied shoveled.

Retired brothers from St. Cloud, Dave and James Nordick, drove to Moorhead to fill bags, although truth be told they seemed to do as much rhapsodizing about their own days in the Guard as they did shoveling. “When we see our brothers in arms struggling, we head out,” Dave explained.

“A lot of these people have probably been through this before,” added Patrick Ellwein of Wolverton, Minn., who spent his afternoon standing in knee-deep ice water alongside the brothers. “People pull together the best they can.”

In one week, 5.5 million sandbags were filled and more than 50 miles of dikes constructed with them. Another 40 miles of Hesco were erected. Until the river dips below 36 feet and it’s clear runoff won’t send it higher again, every single inch will need patrolling.

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics for MinnPost. She can be reached at bhawkins [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Gary Eidson on 04/01/2009 - 11:53 am.

    This story is pretty amazing, and well told. Heroic and largely selfless efforts in desperate circumstances. I can’t help thinking, though, that the situation is also a little pathetic. How come we aren’t hearing about this level of desperation and effort in Grand Forks which, after all, is just up the river? I suspect the reason is that Grand Forks bit the bullet (after the clamity of their experience with floods in ’97) and made the sort of substantial local investment needed to have the Army Corps of Engineers build a permanent flood control system. My understanding is that the Corp requires a local participation in the cost of a permannent system in the range of 15 – 25%. When a system costs in the range of $700 million dollars, that is a huge undertaking for towns the size. So, Fargo and Moorhead have declined to install such a system and, instead, decided to confront their flooding issues in the patchwork way we are observing, relying on massive volunteer efforts and emergency action by various elements of the federal government (the Army Corp, the National Guard FEMA and even the border patrol services are involved). The cost to the local government is nominal, as I understand it, when such federal help is supplied in response to an emergency. So, one could conclude that it is cheaper for towns like this to deal with regular flooding as succesive emergencies rather than to install a permanent flood control system. There may be an angle to this story to be told that “follows the money” in terms of response costs and that poses the question about whether there is a responsible effort underway to address flood control issues in Fargo/Moorhead on a permanent basis.

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 04/01/2009 - 11:56 am.

    Minnesota and Minnesotans at their very best — the Minnesota I knew and loved for 76 years now. I have just learned of a man in his late 80s who took a bus from the Twin Cities to help out. Few places if ANY, in America, would have performed better.

  3. Submitted by donald maxwell on 04/01/2009 - 12:08 pm.

    I don’t understand why there is new construction, even by such a presumably well-informed body as a college, in areas that were flooded in 1997. If the report is accurate, the new construction was not even designed in such a way as to cope with new flooding.

    What is missing from this picture? Are not floods like this one not only predictable but likely to recur at even higher levels? What is being done upstream to reduce the intensity of future flooding events?

  4. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 04/01/2009 - 02:23 pm.

    Mssrs. Maxwell and Eidson:

    You ask a very good question about the middle school mentioned in the story, which begs some clarification: The dike that failed was a permanent, steel dike installed after the ’97 flood at a cost of $1 million. The new buildings on the grounds were built above the 100-year flood line, which is to code. If the waters had risen only as high as 1997’s near-historic level, the school would have been snug and dry.

    As to the larger questions, why would anyone build new homes and facilities in an area so prone to flooding, and why would local officials fail to follow in Grand Forks’ footsteps regarding long-term flood protection measures, I don’t know. I heard the same scenario Mr. Eidson outlined raised several times at the media briefings I attended, but Fargo officials were reluctant to engage in that discussion.

    They’ll have plenty of time for reflection, however. Cleanup is predicted to take at least two months, and that would be with the continued help of the Army Corps of Engineers.

    Something else worth mentioning: There’s a general concensus among people on the front lines that this flood would have been much, much worse if it had not been for advances in technology since 1997. For example, an unmanned Predator drone plane that arrived Saturday enabled National Weather Service meteorologists to get a much more accurate picture–literally–of the runoff that can be expected as the snow melts. And better intelligence is worth tens of thousands of sandbags.

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