Fargo, N.D. â€” Weary residents of this sandbagged city came together in churches Sunday, counting their blessings that the Red River finally stopped rising and praying the levees would hold back its wrath. A brief levee break that swamped a school warned them of the threat they face in days ahead.
Church services that are a staple of life on Sunday mornings in Fargo took on greater significance after a week of round-the-clock sandbagging. Worshippers sang hymns and held hands, asking together for divine help in avoiding disaster.
“At a time like this, we need to call on God’s providential assistance,” said the Rev. Bob Ona, pastor of Fargo’s First Assembly of God church. “All of you have been heroic in your efforts. All of you have been pushed past the wall of weariness, exhaustion and numerous frustrations in order to do the right thing: Help people in the name of the Lord.”
The Red River continued its slow retreat Sunday after cresting a day earlier, dropping from its record level to 39.71 feet. City officials have said they would breathe easier when the river falls to 37 feet or lower, expected by this Saturday, meaning a lengthy test for sandbag levees that residents hastily constructed last week.
Fargo faced another test this week as a storm approached with up to a half-foot of snow and powerful wind gusts that could send ferocious waves crashing into and over the already-stressed levees.
The sandbag effort resumed Sunday as helicopters began dropping 11 one-ton sandbags into the river to deflect its violent current and keep it from eroding vulnerable areas of the dike system. A helicopter also was used to lower a 3,000-pound concrete weight onto an ice jam that was causing river levels to rise at Oslo, Minn., about 25 miles north of Grand Forks.
“They tried it, but there wasn’t much success to it,” Oslo City Council member Scott Kosmatka said.
The aerial effort also included an unmanned Predator drone used to watch flood patterns and ice floes and provide high-definition information to teams on the ground. North Dakota has more than 2,400 National Guard troops engaged in the flood fight across the state.
The helicopter sandbag effort was focused on an area of the river where waters burst past a levee early Sunday and submerged a Lutheran school campus.
Oak Grove Lutheran Principal Morgan Forness said city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Guard unsuccessfully tried to contain the gushing water after a floodwall buckled around 1:30 a.m.
The water kept spreading and “we couldn’t contain it. … it’s inundating all of the buildings,” Forness said.
“The campus is basically devastated. They fought the good fight. They lost, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Mayor Dennis Walaker said. “Those things will continue to happen. I guarantee it.”
The levee watch in Fargo was one of several fronts in the fight against the Red River. Public works officials were closely watching to make sure water and sewer systems remained safe.
The pastor at the Assemblies of God church said now was the time to turn to spirituality for hope. Ona told the congregation that “we have done everything we can do, humanly speaking.”
“We don’t feel we deserve any awards or plaques for what we did,” he added. “We are a church. This is what we do.”