Oak Grove school overcome by waterSome say campus was sacrificed to help cityIt’s been a roller-coaster week for Fargo’s Oak Grove Lutheran School.
By: Dave Olson, Mike Nowatzki and Kelly Smith, INFORUM
It’s been a roller-coaster week for Fargo’s Oak Grove Lutheran School.
Early Sunday morning, it hit bottom as a breach in a dike threatened to again inundate the entire campus with floodwaters like it did in 1997.
“We can save this,” said city officials and Oak Grove supporters.
And they did.
Hours later, school officials were headed back up the roller coaster – more optimistic they can still successfully fight this year’s flood.
“Last night seemed to be the dawning of a very dark day for us and our neighborhood and our community,” Oak Grove President Bruce Messelt said Sunday. “But it took some absolutely brilliant thinking from some incredible people, and we are fighting the fight, and we are, at this point, winning the fight.”
City officials and 50 National Guard members worked throughout Sunday to seal off the leak, pump water out of campus and protect the three buildings left unharmed.
“Two out of five isn’t bad, I guess; all is not lost,” said spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell. “This morning we thought we had totally lost the fight. It’s a blow, but we’re not lying down yet.”
An Army Black Hawk helicopter placed 11 1-ton sandbags along the dike where the water was coming into campus before crews began pumping water out, said Fargo Public Works Operations Manager Al Weigel.
“We should hopefully be able to get everything back again with only two buildings having water,” he said.
Messelt said it’s still unknown what led to the breach in the steel cofferdam on the north side of campus.
“We could never have prepared for this type of failure,” Messelt said. “We had just hoped not to have a crisis of this magnitude.”
The basement of the administration building, Benson Hall, near the dike breach, was full of water early Sunday. And Jackson Hall, an academic building, had about 6 inches of water in its basement.
No water ended up in the new Scheels Center for Performing Arts or the Darwin Gorder Gymnasium, Messelt said.
The Ellig Wellness Center has some sewer backup, but that was a problem before Sunday’s dike breach, he added.
Jackson was renovated in 2005, the Scheels Center was built in 2007, and the Ellig Center opened in 2008. Both the Scheels and Ellig centers were built on elevations to survive 100-year flood events, Messelt said.
“We have a lot invested in the school,” Campbell said.
In fact, since the ’97 flood, more than $1 million was spent to rebuild the school, and, in recent years,
$18 million went into transforming the campus with these projects.
It was a lot they could have lost in a matter of minutes Sunday morning.
“I was heartbroken,” Messelt said about the early morning phone call alerting him to the breach.
The problem began about 1:15 a.m. with a leak at the base of the school’s permanent floodwall.
“It was almost geyserlike in that it shot 3 to 4 feet up in the air, which told us that it was coming from somewhere underground,” said high school Principal Morgan Forness.
The flow quickly became a torrent as volunteers who were pulling a night shift on dike duty tried to stop the tide, throwing sandbag after sandbag into the growing maw of the breach.
When water poured into the lower level of Benson Hall, the workers moved their effort inside in hopes of containing the threat.
“Basically, we tried to sandbag the stairwells to make sure we could keep the water in, but water is an amazing thing,” said Joel Swanson, a science teacher at Oak Grove and one of about a dozen adults and students who were on dike watch early Sunday.
The volunteers evacuated as National Guard troops, firefighters and police swarmed the area with heavy machinery and large trucks brimming with sandbags.
During the fight, workers cut through part of the school’s sandbag dike to allow heavy trucks to carry more sandbags into the campus.
When they had done what they could to stem the leaking floodwall, workers pulled out and closed the sandbag dike behind them, preventing water from leaving Oak Grove and threatening nearby homes.
“In somewhat of a bit of irony, that levee now seems like it will help to protect the rest of the neighborhood,” Messelt said. “And so we feel that God has a plan, that perhaps we didn’t build that levee to protect the campus but to help the city with this flood fight.”
Officers alerted neighborhood residents to what had happened, and people were told to make sure drains in lower levels were plugged.
At 4 a.m., Oak Grove senior Megan Ness got a text message from a friend about the school’s flooding. And while she wasn’t surprised, she still found the news “heartbreaking.”
By Sunday afternoon, she, like school officials, was more optimistic as she filled sandbags at the Fargodome.
“We’ll get through it. We’ve been through it before,” she said.
Now, Oak Grove officials will try to repair the damage and continue carefully monitoring the dikes surrounding all sides of their campus.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Campbell said.
In fact, 24-hour dike patrol teams resumed Sunday afternoon. And while Messelt said there’s no indication other dikes are under pressure, Forness said he’s not sure how long they can handle the high river level.
National Guard, city officials and the Army Corps of Engineers remained on campus Sunday night. Most of the water had been pumped out of campus and Jackson Hall, but Benson Hall’s basement remained flooded.
While classes are canceled this week, decisions about short-term relocation and long-term cleanup have yet to be determined.
It is certain, though, that the fight is not over for this small school. Officials have no plans to leave the land they call home.
“We’ve been here 103 years – that should tell you,” Messelt said. “Our campus can be rebuilt. Our students and staff and families can recover, but God’s faithfulness will never be questioned during this tragedy.”
Inforum searchword: flooding
Forum reporter John Lamb contributed
to this report