FARGO — More than 100,000 volunteers filled an estimated 3.5 million sandbags that stretched 10 miles as the city fortified its defenses against the record flood of 2009.
That monumental effort was made in 10 days and was crucial in enabling Fargo to hold back the Red River, which surged to a record crest of 40.84 feet.
Now that effort and other sandbagging campaigns have been commemorated in a metal cutout sculpture, “The Spirit of the Sandbagger,” that forms an arch at a monument at the downtown floodwall at the northeast corner of First Avenue North and Second Street across from City Hall.
The artwork, envisioned by Mike Benson, designed by artist Karen Bakke and fabricated by Brock Davis, was celebrated in a ceremony Wednesday, Sept. 15.
“It is public art at its finest,” depicting the “unbreakable spirit of the community,” Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said. He said the successful 2009 flood fight was one of the greatest displays of solidarity Fargo has ever seen.
Many of those volunteers were schoolchildren, Mahoney said. Officials weren’t sure middle school students were capable of hefting heavy sandbags, but decided to let them participate — and an eighth-grader appeared hoisting a sandbag on the cover of a Forum book chronicling the flood.
The public art project was spearheaded by the Fargo Lions Club — Benson is a member — which raised $200,000 to honor the “perseverance, diligence and bravery” of the uncounted thousands of volunteers who fought numerous Red River floods.
During preparations for the 2009 crest, the spacious Fargodome was pressed into service as “Sandbag Central,” where thousands of volunteers gathered to fill millions of sandbags.
Mahoney recalled the tense moment when Mark Bittner, who was city engineer during the 2009 flood, urged leaders the night before the crest to raise levees and floodwalls another foot to be safe.
The late Dennis Walaker, who was mayor at the time, decided to heed Bittner’s advice, saying he wanted to ensure a successful flood fight. “I don’t want to go down as the guy who was one foot short,” Walaker said, according to Mahoney, who added: “We survived the flood of 2009.”
It was during the 2009 flood fight that Mahoney began wearing a yellow safety vest, which would become his trademark, a tradition Mahoney said started because nobody knew who he was in 2009, when he was deputy mayor and served in Walaker’s shadow.
Mahoney invoked an Irish saying: “There is strength in unity,” and added: “Let us never forget that we as a united community are unstoppable.”
Fargo has completed 95% of levees and floodwalls to be able to hold back a river level of 37 feet, which will work in tandem with the $3.2 billion metro flood protection project, on pace to be finished in 2027.
Fargo’s floodwalls and levees should be completed next year, and officials hope the city will no longer have to call upon legions of sandbaggers.
Jane Pettinger, a leader of the Fargo Lions Club, said money has been raised to install lights to illuminate “The Spirit of the Sandbagger.”
“We will be able to see this beautiful artwork day and night,” she said. "We sincerely hope that all who pass by this monument to sandbaggers, working together to accomplish goals only possible through their collective efforts, will be inspired to join in on efforts within their communities."