By Kristen Daum
The State News
The river bulges its banks. The only option: Get out of its way. As the floodwater rises, volunteers flock to pile sandbags along the water’s edge. Schools close, businesses shut down and daily life grinds to a halt as residents defend their community from an unstoppable force of nature.
That’s what life is like lately in Fargo, N.D.
At 2 a.m. Friday, the Red River hit a historic level at 40.1 feet. It finally crested at 40.82 feet at just past midnight Saturday – at about 23 feet above the flood stage.
If this happened to the Red Cedar River, the total evacuation area equal to that between North Dakota and Minnesota would reach north past Burcham Drive, or south on campus beyond Service Road — more than three-quarters of a mile from the banks of the river.
After living in West Fargo, N.D., for seven years, I can tell you flooding isn’t uncommon during the springtime thaw.
But no one could have expected it at this magnitude. Especially not when it happened just 12 years after what was supposed to be the 100-year flood of our time.
In 1997, North Dakota made national news when the Red River caused devastating floods to Fargo and Grand Forks, about 80 miles north of Fargo. Most of the damage was in the Grand Forks area, and $417 million was spent in the 12 years since to shore up dikes and levees along the river to protect the area from the next flood.
But flood protection in Fargo was slow in coming, and it’s possible the city is paying the price, as even emergency man-made dikes aren’t enough in some areas.
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that more than $10 million was spent to install new pump stations and remove more than 150 homes from flood-prone neighborhoods.
Still, nothing sustainable and permanent exists along the river, which defines the border between Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., a community of more than 125,000 people.
Last week, thousands were forced to leave their homes. In Minnesota, many homes were lost to floodwaters, and in Fargo, several buildings were lost as the water breached man-made levees this weekend.
Nearly 700 miles away from East Lansing, Fargo is a world away. But that doesn’t mean we, at MSU, can ignore this historic and horrific natural disaster and not help. It’d be like ignoring your own neighbors — letting them lose their homes without giving it a second glance.
Mark Largent, assistant professor in James Madison College, grew up in Fargo and his sister-in-law has already lost her house there, he said.
“The real issue for me is a sense of sadness that the people there are working so hard to save their homes and there is so little national recognition of just how large a disaster this is,” Largent told me in an e-mail. “For many of the people who live there this … is deeply painful.”
Heidi Gustad, 2008 alumna, of south Fargo, told me Friday that her parents were evacuated from their family home as a precautionary measure.
And 2003 MSU alumnus Patrick Kittle, who has lived in the Fargo area for three and a half years, has worked around the clock for the past week to build a 300-foot-long, 5-foot-high dike around a friend’s home. He’s just hoping it holds, he told me.
“The entire Fargo area has come together like I could’ve never imagined a community doing,” Kittle said. “It’s like one big family. This is a community very much like most cities in Michigan, filled with great people.”
You might think you can’t do anything. You can.
You might not care because it’s so far away. You should; it could just as easily happen here or to someone you know.
You might think these people mean nothing to you. They do. They’re your classmates, professors, neighbors and friends.
Just because the Red River stopped rising doesn’t mean Fargo is in the clear. There’s still a high risk that sandbag levees and gravel dikes might break under intense pressure from the floodwaters. Then there’s the months-long recovery effort yet to begin.
Help however you can. The American Red Cross, The Salvation Army and the United Way all have relief funds set up that you can donate to.
The Fargo-Moorhead community needs our support in whatever way we can give it — including those students, faculty and staff here at MSU who call Fargo-Moorhead home.
Kristen M. Daum is the State News editor-in-chief and former West Fargo, N.D. resident.