Flooding calls students to action

College students volunteer to service as rivers rise in North Dakota, Minnesota


Residents of Valley City heed the voluntary evacuation as the Sheyenne River rises and is expected to crest in the next day or two.
Credit: FEMA/Michael Reiger

In Fargo, ND, the Rev. Theta Wagner Miller experienced flooding first-hand.

Miller is the director of the United Campus Ministry of Fargo-Moorhead (UCM). The ministry brings together Christian students among the three major universities in the area.

When Miller and the students reopened the center after Spring Break, she realized the basement was filling with water. “We didn’t have time for worship we all just stepped up and started to clean up,” Miller said.

“All I could think was ‘wow - this is going to be a long week.’”

For four nights, students slept in the center to help with the cleanup.

“We took shifts dumping water and swapping soaked towels for dry ones,” Miller explained.

Miller said experience helped the students “plug in” in a new way.

“I really felt like the students were taking an ownership of this sacred space. It was really special,” Miller said.

Apart from rescuing their own building, more than 20 students at UCM spent several days helping prepare the city for flooding.

Devin Hanson is a psychology major at North Dakota State University. He has spent almost every day of the past few weeks filling, tying and stacking sandbags.

Hanson is one of thousands of college students who helped fortify the city against the rising waters of the Red River.

He compares it to “helping the neighbors.”

“It’s kind of a feeling like, you know, the city needs us. And sandbagging is something we can do. We’re able-bodied,” Hanson said.

Hanson described the work was “simple, but very tiring.”

“Exhausting, but worth it,” Hanson added.

“The students literally have saved this city,” Miller said.

Miller explained that college students were even bused to surrounding communities to help prepare sandbags.

“People want to say like it’s a heroic thing. But it just feels like that’s what needed to be done,” Hanson said.

“So what needs to get done gets done.”

“That’s just the way things are up here. It really happens naturally,” Miller said.

Hanson joined his friends at sandbagging stations throughout Fargo. He was most exhausted after days piling sandbags up onto dikes.

Now, the only thing that seems to be piling up is schoolwork.

“I’m just kind of hoping things hold steady so that I can stick to the books and not the sandbags,” Hanson said.

Tough Stuff

“We really save our communities on the backs of the very young. We rely on their energy to get the job done,” said the Rev. Debra Ball-Kilbourne, of the North Dakota United Methodist Conference.

Besides sandbagging, Ball-Kilbourne said volunteers are most exhausted coordinating relief work that meets the diverse flood needs along the Red River Valley.

“In most disasters you have one community or two communities involved. We have an entire state to deal with,” Ball-Kilbourne explained.

“Some communities are at second-crest stage, while others have yet to crest.”

Ball-Kilbourne said her own community of Jamestown is dealing with the very beginning stages of flooding.

“But in Valley City they had a breech in the dike (Monday) morning. It was contained and they were able to fill it back up, but it gave us a flutter in our hearts,” Ball-Kilbourne said.

The North Dakota United Methodist Conference is handling disaster response in a four-pronged approach: cleanup, rebuilding work, pastoral care and case management. Ball-Kilbourne knows their relief work is for the long term.

While current flooding seems to affect almost everyone’s paychecks in the Red River Valley area, Ball-Kilbourne fears the real economic hit is yet to come.

“We’re kind of bracing ourselves I’m even knocking on wood as I say this for the time when our spring rains come. It’s not at all unusual that we have heavy rains in June,” Ball-Kilbourne explained.

“We’ll just be getting over this episode and I’m anticipating we’ll be dealing with more water come this summer.” More flooding will delay planting season and affect the income farmers and ranchers will earn this the fall.

“This is a long-term disaster with long-term effects,” Ball-Kilbourne said.

“It is tough stuff.”

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