We fought the flood – Now we need leaders


by Tom Heuerman, Ph.D. | June 1, 2009 • We fought the record flood flood of the Red River—now we need leaders.

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The Small Business Administration adjuster said, “Many places people just abandon their homes when it floods. Then the city comes in and dumps a bunch of dirt in the road.” The FEMA adjuster said, “We’ve brought in bus loads of volunteers to help save homes in other places and those whose homes we are trying to save, sit and watch us do the work. You people up here care and fight.”

While the details of our individual stories vary, the underlying care, courage, and commitment our neighbors and those throughout the area displayed during the recent record flood distinguished our region in ways that transcend geographical boundaries.

My family’s story reflects so many. We live in south Moorhead, MN.

We began to build our 20,000 sandbag dike on March 20, 2009. While we suffered 20% flood damage this flood, no water came over, under, around, or through the sandbag ring around our home. When the Army Corps of Engineers took the behemoth down, an Army supervisor said it was one of the best dikes he’d seen. Without a dike of that size and quality, our main floor would have flooded.

As many as 150 people worked 16 hours or more a day for two days and a dozen worked for four days after that to construct this dike, which had to get larger daily due to constantly changing National Weather Service forecasts.

By March 25, 2009, our home was surrounded by water. Yet the crest forecasts continued to raise the crest level. We had no sand. We traveled by boat in and out of our neighborhood. The city built a dike on our access road communicating “we cannot protect you.”

Our home is not safe in a major flood. If a fire, the fire department could not reach us. In a medical emergency, help would have had difficulty getting to us at all, let alone quickly. If a boat motor quit, the strong currents would take us into the main channel and would put us in peril. We are lucky that we did not fall climbing over the slippery dike (due to plastic and snow) to get into the boat in water several feet deep.

To meet the challenge of the daily crest forecast changes, our family members and flood crew climbed over our dike, traveled by boat to the diked access road, walked through snow-filled neighborhood yards to pickup trucks blocks away, traveled throughout Moorhead to find filled bags, loaded the trucks, parked blocks away from our home because of city dikes, pulled a sled filled with sandbags through the snow, pulled the sled over the dike on the access road, loaded the bags into the boat, and boated back to our home. This happened over and over again.

On March 25, 2009 family and friends worked all day, night, and until 2:00AM on March 26, 2009 and had to break the ice forming in the flood waters to get the boat through the water. The situation was dangerous and some advised us to let the house go to the flood. We could not do that and stayed and sandbagged until ordered to evacuate by the police.

Now we clean up, many suffer post traumatic stress but few talk about it, and we feel vulnerable to the Red River like never before. We cannot make these kinds of efforts year after year. Soon fall will be here and a new flood watch will begin.

Leaders at all levels on both sides of the river (Minnesota and North Dakota) call for cooperation and long-term flood protection. Most have never worked cooperatively for the larger good. The threat of the Red River calls for visionary and servant leadership: leaders who can imagine a safer future and care about the region, not just their city or state. Today’s leaders need to develop new skills or we need to elect new leaders.