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Notes from the sandbag lines

March 27, 2009 - Deb Gau
By now, my arms aren’t sore anymore. But I’ve been watching the news footage and reports coming out of the Fargo-Moorhead area with more and more concern over the last couple of days.

I accompanied a group of Minneota high school students who went sandbagging in Fargo on Wednesday, and now every time I see pictures of suburban houses surrounded by water, I wonder if that’s what’s happened to the neighborhood where we worked.

None of us were really sure what to expect when the bus drove into town Wednesday morning. I don’t know about the students, but I definitely had pictures in my head of wading through floodwaters to build a dike. Instead, we ended up making a breakwater about two sandbags high, running across several very nice backyards. You could see water coming up a little bit past the back fences of those yards, but the parts where we were standing were only wet with snow. Local residents said the neighborhood was designed with a kind of open area out back for water collection, but this was the first time it had ever gotten high enough to threaten houses.

Now, I was on this trip to get photos and talk with students about their experiences, but I didn’t last at that. You can’t stand outside the sandbag lines for very long without feeling like you’re not doing your part. I found a spot in the line between the high schoolers and some NDSU students and started passing.

That’s where I formed my first big impression of the trip. Between the urgency of the situation and the kindness and openness of the people we met, the whole sandbagging effort felt like a block party gone wrong. Neighborhood kids were hanging around with plastic bags full of handwarmers. People made jokes and chatted. One woman came outside to offer the Minneota kids sloppy Joes. And the whole time, forklift loads of sandbags and pickup trucks full of volunteers and the occasional National Guard humvee would drive past. It was strange, but good strange.

The bad strange started to kick in later, as we were getting ready to go home. To be honest, I wonder how much of an impact our efforts made. As the kids’ shift was ending, our part of the neighborhood was running out of sandbags, and the snowflakes just kept on getting wetter and heavier. I talked with one man on the ride back to the Fargodome who said it’s an ongoing issue, whether the city can, or should, build levees fast enough to keep up with expanding development. (Meaning all those nice houses surrounded by floodwaters.)

None of this is meant to belittle the efforts of the volunteers, however. I’m still impressed by how calm and friendly everyone involved in the flood relief was. The Minneota students kept up the energy and the positive attitude the whole trip. All the people we saw, from the sandbaggers down to the chiropractors volunteering at the Fargodome, were pretty much the same way. As I was heading out to the bus, I overheard one volunteer preparing to give a back massage to another person on the shovel crews.

“So, is this your first flood?” he asked cheerfully.


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