Flood 2009: First Responders
Snow pelted the face of Todd Reynolds '11, Plymouth, Minn., as he tossed sandbags onto a dike built in north Moorhead to hold back the rapidly rising Red River. As the day went on, sandbags grew heavier and footholds became slicker when 7 inches of snow fell on volunteers already exhausted by round-the-clock flood preparations.
Still, Reynolds shrugged off the miserable weather to return to the front lines later that afternoon. The National Weather Service had just raised the crest prediction, prompting city leaders to recommend dikes be built a foot higher to 43 feet. Reynolds donned muddy layers, hat and gloves to go help.
"We're a part of this community," he says. "It's our responsibility to do this."
On March 28, the Red River swelled to 40.82 feet, its highest recorded level in Moorhead and its neighboring sister city, Fargo, N.D. In addition to record-high waters, the crest came earlier than expected. Communities had less than a week to protect homes and businesses.
When the first call for volunteers went out, Concordia responded. Students, faculty and staff provided crucial support during the first weekend of flood protection, a time when other colleges in the region were still on spring break.
Jason Boutwell, a Fargo resident, became an admirer of Cobber spirit during that time. He filled sandbags in the middle of the night at the Fargodome near a group of students wearing Concordia sweatshirts. While the students waited for sand to be delivered, they pounded their shovels on the floor and broke into what Boutwell describes as a fight song.
"It definitely lifted our spirits," Boutwell says. "It changed the mood from one of drudgery to one of fun. I wish I worked next to students with that energy and spirit every day."
That energy rose along with the predictions for the crest. Concordia canceled classes the last full week in March to give students, faculty and staff more time to help their neighbors. The college ran a dozen shuttles more than 12 hours a day, transporting volunteers to a communitywide flood control center and to numerous sandbagging sites. Dining Services prepared more than 1,000 sandwiches for volunteers.
Many students put in long hours and, after a short break, returned to do it again.
Everybody found something they could do, whether it was sandbagging, driving shuttles or signing up volunteers. Dr. David Wintersteen, associate professor of CSTA, helped organize volunteers and tracked resources at one sandbagging station in south Moorhead. The reason for the assignment was obvious, he says.
"They knew I could direct," he jokes, a comment about his theatre expertise.
Even out-of-town alumni contributed to the efforts.
When Megan (Fricke) Dimich '06, Rosemount, Minn., heard about the impending flood, her thoughts wandered to friends and family back in her college town. One night she and her husband, Matt Dimich '05, packed up their gear and headed to Moorhead with their friend Jason Miller '06. They spent a day sandbagging, moving from house to house as they were needed.
"I thought, I don't need to be at school," says Megan Dimich, a music teacher. "My students can learn music without me."
But in the end, it was the energy and muscles of students that made the biggest difference. They became experts in the zigzag relay of passing sandbags and slept with the grit of sand between their teeth. A normally bustling campus stood eerily quiet as students dispersed into neighborhoods across the community. For a week, they traded classroom discussions for community service and, in many cases, taught the lessons by example.
Like many Cobbers, John M. Anderson '10, Cambridge, Minn., spent a weekend filling and throwing sandbags. He happily returned to the same Moorhead home on the following Monday.
"We have the whole community supporting us," says Anderson, one of the captains for the 2009 football team. "Now, we're doing what we can for them."
Many of his teammates were two blocks away helping an elderly couple empty a huge flatbed trailer of sandbags with a carefully organized bagging line. Neighbor Gary Burggraff stopped by to ask for their help when they finished. His plywood dike would protect the back of his home, he said, but with the increased crest estimate, he had more work ahead of him.
Danika Patterson '12, Bozeman, Mont., volunteered late Sunday night and into the early hours of Monday. After a short nap, she was back tossing sandbags by mid-morning.
"There are so many homes that need help," she says. "They can't do it alone."
Not far away from where she was working, dozens of Cobbers stood ankle-deep in mud, tossing sandbags onto an ever-growing pile while Bob Dylan blared from a car's sound system. They were building a dike in the backyard of Margaret and Ken Dahl, Moorhead. The stacked sandbags were part of an effort to protect an entire neighborhood against a flooding coulee.
"It's so wonderful to have students here," says Margaret Dahl, as a line of Cobbers snaked through her garage. "It's going to make a huge difference." And it did.
Turning the Tides
Moorhead resident Scott Peterson worried he wouldn't get enough sandbags to raise his backyard dike an extra foot when authorities requested it. Just then a group of college students arrived with a truck towing a trailer of sandbags.
"If it wasn't for Concordia College," Peterson told the Star Tribune in a story that ran March 26, "our neighborhood would be under."
Crest predictions reached as high as 43 feet by the end of the week. After close discussions with city officials President Pamela Jolicoeur closed the campus March 27. The decision was made to protect the city's infrastructure, primarily sewer and water supplies, and to give students an opportunity to leave before the city issued mandatory evacuations. Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji, Minn., offered a place to stay for students who didn't have other options.
By then, the final touches had been placed on towering sandbag levees in Moorhead and Fargo – most of which withstood the Red River's wrath. Although the river didn't quite reach as high as weather officials forecasted, it is the highest level on record. A second crest in mid-April reached just over 34 feet.
On April 6, the college reopened and a chapel service celebrated the strength of community.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty sent a letter to Concordia, thanking all for their help. "Your selfless actions have changed the lives of our neighbors and the course of history in the Moorhead area," he wrote.
Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland also addressed the full Centrum. An early assessment showed 71 homes in all of Clay County received major damage from the flood. Without strong protection, more than 2,600 homes in Moorhead alone would've been at risk,
As he walked to the front of the room, everyone applauded. His voice choked with emotion, Voxland responded by saying he should be the one applauding.
"I'm here to thank all of you for the great gift you gave my community," he says. "How do you say thank you? I don't know. Words are so inadequate. But thank you, thank you, thank you."