After two exhausting weeks of flood fighting at Fargo's Oak Grove Lutheran School north campus, the volunteer crew and staff — against what seemed to be all odds — had successfully secured the campus against the Mighty Red . . . or so we thought!
A few short hours before, the historic crest of 40.82 feet had been announced. We breathed a sigh of relief as we realized that the river would not go to the 42 feet that had been predicted. We all knew that a 42-foot flood level would push us to — and likely beyond — our limit.
The night was beautiful. The moon was out and it was eerily quiet. The only noise one could hear was the rushing water alongside and nearing the top of the dike that protected the three sides of the school campus.
Our flood teams had been going 24/7 for nearly two weeks straight, manning pumps and placing nearly 50,000 sandbags. I was so proud of our students, staff, parents and other community volunteers who unselfishly gave of their time and talents. Our break room was always filled with delicious food and plenty of supplies. Some of the volunteers even slept on campus between shifts.
The partnership and collaboration with students from local colleges and high schools, homeowners, businesses, non-profits, local city leaders, state and federal officials, and the National Guard, was second to none as planning, meetings and preparations had taken place far in advance. The mindset was that we are all in this together and nobody would be left behind to fend for themselves. It was reassuring to see the leadership that emerged and the friendships that were formed during this time of crisis, knowing that we needed each other to win this flood fight.
I can still remember the names of the many community leaders: Walaker, Mahoney, Zavoral, Gorder, Hoover, Todd, Laney, Bittner, Walker. All people of poise and perseverance standing as community giants in the flood fight effort. I was humbled and proud to be a part of such a wonderful community!
And the media … they were everywhere telling the human interest stories of spirit and Midwest grit that they do so well.
As I took my walk that night to check on the flood teams located throughout the campus, the unthinkable happened.
The alarm was sounded by our team on the north side of the school. As I rounded the corner, I couldn't believe my eyes. The water wasn’t coming over or through the dike, as we had feared. Instead, it was gushing up through a hole inside the dike like a geyser shooting water 10 feet into the air. The water had found an opening underneath the dike and the immense pressure forced its way inside, quickly filling the void between the dike and the building.
My greatest fear was realized as our volunteers risked their lives standing waist-deep in water, attempting to throw sandbags into the hole, making every effort to slow the breach.
The attempt was futile.
My immediate response was to sound the emergency alarm and alert one of the “rapid response teams” deployed throughout the city. My second response was to locate all members of our night shift team to be sure everyone was accounted for.
Within minutes, the rapid response team arrived, led by Joel Vettel of the Fargo Police Department. His cool, calm demeanor still stands out in my mind as he orchestrated an effort unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Heavy equipment, bulldozers and semis loaded with sandbags were brought in and hundreds of National Guard members, firefighters and other volunteers came running to the site.
It was dark and wet and chaotic … yet with intense resolve, everyone went to work trying to slow the tide that was taking over the entire campus. It was decided to use the Benson Hall building as a temporary dike and sandbag lines were formed to tie the building into the completed dikes adjacent to the building.
But water has a way of making its route inward and we were losing the battle. Benson Hall’s lower level and first floor were quickly inundated and the water was making its way through the building, filling up the courtyard and encroaching the campus, moving on the other buildings. People fought gallantly but at 4 a.m., in a decisive move for the safety of all, the decision was made to evacuate the campus.
The city built a secondary dike on the street to protect the rest of the Oak Grove neighborhood and the downtown area.
Wet, exhausted and with tears of sorrow, we retreated, feeling a sense of loss that is hard to explain. We fought to keep the waters at bay, but it appeared we had lost the fight.
At the crack of dawn, I received a call from Brian Berg, the school’s architect and an Oak Grove alum, who somehow had made his way onto the campus. Brian stated that while Benson Hall and Jackson Hall were completely flooded, the efforts made the previous night had at least slowed the water filling the campus and he felt at least two buildings, Gorder Gymnasium and Scheels Center for the Performing Arts, could yet be protected from the water.
The decision was quickly made to resume the flood effort and the call went out.
Again, hundreds of volunteers showed up in an incredible response to the request.
What occurred over the next few hours is still somewhat of a blur, but I couldn’t be more proud and consider myself any more fortunate to have experienced what happened next:
- The National Guard Black Hawk Helicopters were deployed to bring in one-ton “sandbags” and drop them in the area of the dike that had experienced the breach. I still remember the exact spot that our team identified for the National Guardsmen. Ten 1-ton sandbags were dropped into the identified breach location and the water flow slowed even more.
- Assistant Principal David Ness and Greg Tehven, with a faithful group of volunteers from “Students Today, Leaders Forever," showed up and began an internal sandbagging effort around Gorder Gymnasium. This building had water within one inch of making its way onto the brand-new gym floor.
- Doug Burgum and other volunteers showed up and worked tirelessly pumping out the lower level of Jackson Hall, minimizing the damage.
- Ben Dow from the city of Fargo arrived with an arsenal of floating pumps and hooked up 6-inch lines to begin pumping the 4 feet of water that had made its way onto campus back out over the dike.
- By mid-day, the water inside the campus was almost gone and two critical buildings within the school campus were saved.
I don’t normally cry but I wept for the second time in a few-hours stretch … only this time, tears of joy!
I cannot begin to tell you the sense of gratitude I felt for all who selflessly served, generously gave of their time and answered the call and assisted us that day. Damage to the campus was extensive — around $2 million.
Classes at Oak Grove were able to temporarily relocate to Agassiz School for the remainder of the school year. While still in recovery mode, we were fortunate to return to campus by the end of May for graduation. I will always call the class of 2009 the “Flood Class” and assume some of the lessons they learned that spring probably didn’t have as much to do with academics, but rather with citizenship and what it means to pull together as a community.
I never had an opportunity to formally say thank you to all who helped that day but I say it now: Thank you to everyone I remember and also to those of you who just showed up out of the goodness of your heart that I may have never met.
Oak Grove survived and its mission and ministry stay strong. Additionally, the F-M community, while stretched to its limit, overcame an impending disaster due to the fierce determination and perseverance that we know exists in the population of the people here.
To this day Fargo and the entire region are as vibrant and full of opportunity as ever. It is not just the place but, more importantly, the people who make Fargo-Moorhead such a wonderful community, and I thank God for the privilege of being a part of it.
Oak Grove, in partnership with FEMA, the Corp of Engineers and the City of Fargo, has installed a flood wall that has already been called upon to protect the campus in the 2010 and 2011 floods and now may be called upon again in 2019.
On the southeast end of the campus wall one can read these words from Song of Solomon 8:7 beautifully and appropriately engraved in the masonry: "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it."
Note: Morgan Forness was principal of Fargo's Oak Grove Lutheran School during the 2009 flood. He is now superintendent at Central Cass Schools in Casselton, N.D.