FARGO — When the flood of 2009 hit, Pete and Debra Livdahl's rural Moorhead business, Building and Grounds Management, was in the thick of the battle to preserve area homes.

In the process, the Livdahls paid a price.

"My husband saved a lot of places and we flooded. We've been struggling ever since," Debra Livdahl said, recalling the damage their business suffered a decade ago when water entered their shop buildings that housed equipment.

When the flood was over, the Livdahls were able to replace their equipment with the help of FEMA loan money.

However, they only recently made their final payment on the loan and before they did every check they wrote was a reminder of what they went through in 2009.

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"We've had a struggle, I tell ya," Debra Livdahl said.

The Livdahls weren't the only ones to suffer water damage when the Red River flooded in 2009, but when it comes to the big picture, the metro area escaped widespread disaster, thanks largely to an army of volunteers that worked day and night to fill and place millions of sandbags.

About three or four million of those sandbags went to Oakport Township north of Moorhead.

Greg Anderson was chairman of the township board in 2009 when flood waters took a number of homes in Oakport and came close to claiming many more, including Anderson's.

'Nothing left in us'

For Anderson, the magnitude of the flood really hit home the night he called his wife, Julie, and told her: "You have to evacuate the house, I think we're going to lose it."

The family packed their most important belongings in suitcases and headed to their lake home, thinking it was the last time they would see their Oakport house intact.

But after a night of sleep, they decided to keep fighting and, ultimately, the family saved their house.

"There was that point where we said, 'We don't have anything left in us,' " Anderson said, recalling the despair they felt at the height of the flood.

But he said after getting a restful night of sleep the sense of defeat gave way to a different thought: "We're not giving up."

The 2009 flood began, in a sense, in the fall of 2008, when autumn rains left soils saturated and ditches and culverts choked with ice.

Then the snow started falling.

Record snow fell in December 2008 and by late February 2009 forecasters were predicting a 60 percent chance the Red River would rise above 35.1 feet and a 10 percent chance it would top 38.5 feet, about a foot shy of the record 1997 crest of 39.72 feet.

On March 10, 2009, a storm dropped more than 10 inches of snow and brought the flood threat into sharp focus.

Nine days later, Fargo-Moorhead residents were told they had roughly a week to prepare for a flood that could rival 1997.

First responders reinforce a dike at Fargo's Oak Grove Lutheran School during the 2009 flood. Forum file photo.
First responders reinforce a dike at Fargo's Oak Grove Lutheran School during the 2009 flood. Forum file photo.

As municipal employees and volunteers scrambled to fill, transport and place millions of sandbags, ominous predictions flowed from the National Weather Service.

The weather service warned at one point of a possible crest of 43 feet, more than three feet above the 1997 record flood.

When the crest finally arrived on March 28, 2009, it reached 40.84 feet, setting a record that stands to this day.

The hard work of metro-area residents had paid off, however, as much of the metro area was spared serious damage.

Still, not all properties escaped damage.

Uniting communities

Many houses in the Forest River area south of Fargo flooded, including the home belonging to Chris and Rachel Ebeling.

After days of sandbagging with help from friends and co-workers, the Ebelings had to watch as water found its way under the sandbags and flooded their basement.

Nine sump pumps couldn't stay ahead of the water, Chris Ebeling recalled, adding that his family was grateful for a group of friends who hauled furniture and other items from the basement to upper levels of the home, limiting the impact of the flooding.

Following the flood, the Ebelings ultimately accepted a buyout and now live in a different house in south Fargo.

Looking back on 2009, Chris Ebeling said what stands out most clearly to him was the effort and time that so many people expended in helping others.

He said the flood preparation and sandbagging was a blur, but there was a moment after that and before the Red River actually hit his home when he had a moment to think about all that had been done to help his family and their neighborhood.

"A lot of emotion hit at that point, because of all the friends and co-workers and everyone who came out," Ebeling said.

Volunters work to raise the level of a dike at Eighth Avenue North and Oak Street near Mickelson Field in Fargo during the 2009 flood. David Samson/The Forum
Volunters work to raise the level of a dike at Eighth Avenue North and Oak Street near Mickelson Field in Fargo during the 2009 flood. David Samson/The Forum

Anderson felt it, too.

"Everybody helped," Anderson said.

"The city of Moorhead gave us support. The city of Fargo gave us support. Everybody was in it as a community; there were no boundaries," Anderson added.

And the community effort didn't end with the flood.

Anderson said just as families in Oakport were trying to figure out how they were going to tear down their sandbag dikes, a busload of students from California showed up.

He recalled the relief expressed by one elderly couple who were the recipients of the students' assistance.

"It was just unbelievable," Anderson said.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, far right, meets with members of the local and national media during a press conference at Fargo City Hall during the 2009 flood. David Samson / The Forum
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, far right, meets with members of the local and national media during a press conference at Fargo City Hall during the 2009 flood. David Samson / The Forum

'You don't have a choice'

The flood of 2009 will be remembered for many firsts, like the evacuation of a number of nursing homes in the Fargo-Moorhead area, as well as the evacuation of entire neighborhoods in Moorhead.

The flood will also be remembered for the efforts of Fargo's late Mayor Dennis Walaker, the man who became the face of the 2009 flood.

Walaker, who died in 2014, had joked during the flood battle that if the people of Fargo were successful in warding off disaster, he'd buy everyone a beer.

The promise was later fulfilled, in a symbolic way, when Walaker handed out 9,000 "Denny Dollars," coupons that, through the generosity of Miller Lite, could be redeemed at a nightclub in Fargo for $1 off beers.

At one point at the height of the flood fight, Walaker reacted strongly to news that the weather service was predicting a crest of just over 41 feet, a prediction that didn't come true, but nonetheless left many feeling deflated.

"Your mind doesn't want to deal with it," Walaker said at the time. "Your mind wants to tell you it's impossible. But you don't have a choice."

Note: The historic flood of 2009 was chronicled in a Forum book called "Will Over Water" that is available for purchase at inforum.com/2009flood.