FARGO, N.D. (BP)–Residents in the twin cities of Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., which are separated by the Red River, were facing a record flood March 27 as the river rose past 40 feet, topping a 112-year record and threatening to overtake homes and businesses.
The Red River runs from south to north, from South Dakota to Manitoba, Canada, so the southern part of the Fargo-Moorhead area is facing the brunt of the river’s force, Morgan Medford, associational missionary for the Dakota Northland Baptist Association, told Baptist Press.
Medford, who lives in Moorhead, was among the thousands of volunteers who were frantically stacking sandbags and building dikes to keep the water from destroying property. He and his son, who lives in St. Cloud, Minn., worked long hours in temperatures that didn’t rise above 20 degrees, he said.
“I’m originally from Georgia, so the idea of being outside for that long, just the clothes you’re wearing, it seems like you can’t do that,” Medford said.
“But up here people just do what they have to do. As we were out there working, there was a fireman who was kind of leading in the effort on the stretch we were doing, and he had been saying we’ve got to get it up to this level, and then about 6:30, he said, ‘Folks, that’s it. We’re done. Drop your bags wherever you are and get your stuff and get out of here,'” Medford recounted.
Originally, experts had predicted the river would crest around 40 feet, so residents started building dikes to handle a 40-foot rise, Medford said, and then about three days ago officials warned the river could rise to at least 41 feet.
“To add the extra foot of height you have to broaden the base. So it’s a whole big operation to keep raising the dikes,” he said. “Yesterday the weather service came back and said the river is going to go between 42 and 43 feet now. That’s real problematic because we’re running out of time.”
Medford was housing some friends who were urged to evacuate their area of Moorhead, but he told BP he would have to flee his home soon. He lives on higher ground, but officials aren’t able to predict where the water might flow in a situation unlike any they’ve ever faced.
“I heard this morning that both Fargo and Moorhead are basically saying we need to get our people out of here because the city looks like it’s going to flood,” Medford said. “As I look out the window right now, it is snowing again. It’s probably 20 degrees again today, so that water is just frigid. You don’t have to fall into the river to get wet, and if you get wet, you don’t have a lot of time.
“… I’m like everybody else. I need to get the important stuff out of my basement. I’ve done a lot, but I need to do more. Then I’ll just close the door and hope to see the house again next week or so,” he said.
Medford explained that the Fargo area experienced an uncharacteristically wet fall and the soil there lacks sand. When it rains, the water sits on top of the ground for a while before it sinks in, he said, and a significant amount of water froze on the ground when the temperatures dipped for winter.
“That made the moisture content of the ground itself extremely high. Then we had the snowiest December that we’ve ever had,” Medford said. “We set a record for snow in December.”
Last week, the temperatures reached the 50s for two or three days, he said, causing the snow to melt rapidly. On top of that, the region received rains that normally wouldn’t come in March.
“So it put a lot of water out there, and what’s going to happen is because we’re so flat, when the river crests — and they’re anticipating it cresting probably tomorrow morning — it’s going to stay at that level for three to five days before it goes down,” Medford said Friday morning, noting that the region is one of the flattest in the country.
“It’s not like where I used to live in Georgia where it would be flood conditions for all of about three hours and then it would move away. That’s not the way it works here,” he said.
Residents are concerned about losing electrical power, he said, because so many homes rely on sump pumps to keep water from collecting in their basements.
“If the power goes out, whatever you’re trying to protect with your sump pump, like with me it’s my basement, my office is down there and I look around and realize that through the years I’ve collected a lot of stuff. I’m trying to move up as much stuff as I can,” Medford said.
He asked that Southern Baptists pray for the residents of Fargo and Moorhead, and he noted that there are three Southern Baptist churches and one mission in the area.
“What’s going to happen is our churches are not going to be meeting this Sunday, more than likely, if everybody follows the advice to get out of town,” Medford said. “Here’s how bad it’s gotten: The mall is not open, there are very few businesses that are open. This is a community of between 175,000 and 190,000 people. It’s normally pretty busy.”
Durward Garrett is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in north Fargo, where the North American Mission Board plans to stage Southern Baptist disaster relief feeding and shower units as soon as logistics allow.
“As far as our church is concerned, we’ve been involved in helping people that we know,” Garrett told BP. “There’s no one directly in our church that’s affected — at least there’s no one whose home is threatened by the flood locally. We’ve been helping friends of friends.
“Across the community the work to prevent the flooding is pretty much done. The deadline is here as far as the river height. Now people are just kind of waiting to see what will eventually happen,” Garrett said Friday morning. “There’s a lot of anxiety, I think, in the community, and it’s kind of heightened because there have been some evacuations in some of the residential areas.”
Garrett said he doubts he will have to evacuate unless the water and sewer systems become unusable. The church is on a Red Cross list as a possible shelter, but as of Friday schools and other public facilities were sufficient in meeting those needs, he said.
“I’ve been out working with the community volunteers, just participating as a fellow volunteer, and the attitudes that I’ve seen and the people I’ve worked with have been very positive,” Garrett said. “The difficulty hasn’t really hit everyone yet. It’s like the adrenaline before. We’re working hard to do what we can. Every individual is helping every place they can.”
Medford and Garrett both expressed gratitude for the vast array of volunteers who have traveled hundreds of miles to help save the cities. College students in the surrounding towns were out in full force, Medford said, and people weren’t hesitating to pitch in.
“So far, people are running on adrenaline and the hope is high,” Garrett said. “If disaster strikes, and especially as homes are lost, that may be another matter. But at this point, we aren’t there yet. So there hasn’t been a lot of that going on as far as people wondering about God and wondering about what to do next and how to find hope in the middle of this situation.
“What I would tell them is there are going to be tragedies and through it all the Lord is going to walk with us and we don’t have to walk alone,” the pastor said. “If we’ll trust Him, somehow we’ll be able to look back one day and see how He used this situation, and we’ll be thankful for what He did in our lives. That’s the kind of thing that I say to folks and hope that they’ll be willing to dig deep into their hearts and put their lives in God’s hands.”
Garrett asked for prayer for the civic leaders of Fargo and Moorhead who are making crucial decisions.
“They’re already running on few hours of sleep and they’ve been working hard, so if people would just pray for those leaders I think that would be a tremendously important thing,” he said.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.