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Cass County first responders move quickly to aid evacuees

The floodwaters didn't scare Deb Tweten and Verona Winkler.

A hand up
North Dakota Army National Guard Spc. Jacob Burdick helps Ruth Herman climb into the back of a 5-ton cargo truck Monday to be evacuated from her daughter's home in Highland Park. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

The floodwaters didn't scare Deb Tweten and Verona Winkler.

But the thought of losing electricity during a snowstorm in a neighborhood isolated by floodwaters with a baby to care for had the next-door neighbors reaching for the phone Monday.

About 2½ hours later, a North Dakota National Guard 5-ton cargo truck rolled up to their homes in the Highland Park subdivision just north of Fargo, ready to rescue them.

Carol Swiontek stood on her stoop across the straight, watching her neighbors evacuate.

"Stickin' it out, huh?" one of them yelled to her.

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Swiontek smiled back: "I'll watch your house."

Her husband, Joe, set up a stepladder to help the three adults and four children into the truck.

Ruth Herman, 70, lifted her 10-month-old grandson, Cameron Winkler, up to his mother, the baby wrapped in a blue blanket with a two-pointed toque keeping his head warm.

The two families were the last to be rescued in Cass County on Monday before the skies opened up.

Using trucks, airboats and helicopters, the sheriff's office and several other local, state and federal agencies had already rescued 127 people in Cass County since the flooding began early last week.

Sheriff Paul Laney advised residents that if they wanted to be evacuated, they needed to do so before the storm, which is expected to last into tonight.

"Because of the weather, if there is a rescue, it'll have to be a life-and-death situation," said Shelbe Benson, spokeswoman for the county's Emergency Operations Center.

As Swiontek walked to the curb to see off her neighbors, she said she and her husband had no intentions of leaving the area.

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"I got lots of milk and eggs, and good neighbors," she said.

Tweten and Winkler initially thought they would stick it out, too.

"Then I thought about Cameron, and I thought, 'What if my generator really doesn't work?' He's a baby," Tweten said.

The forecast of strong winds and a foot or more of snow tipped the scale for the two women.

"Really, for me, it's just if the power goes out, having a baby, it's just a concern," said Winkler, who had already sent her other two children, ages 4 and 7, to stay with family in Valley City, N.D.

They called the EOC about 11:15 a.m. and were told the truck would arrive in 30 minutes. Fortunately, it took longer, giving her more time to pack clothes, baby food, toys and other essentials.

"Got my Diet Coke," Tweten said. "Gotta have your caffeine."

For Herman, it was the second evacuation in less than a week.

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She left her home on Fargo's Woodland Drive on Wednesday, after the city asked homeowners to evacuate contingency areas between primary and backup dikes.

"The stress is absolutely unreal to deal with," Herman said, sitting on the cold steel bench in the back of the rumbling Guard truck.

Herman's husband, Dale, stayed behind in Fargo, working around the clock to keep their basement dry with the help of Winkler's husband, Kevin.

"So, I will give him a big hug and a big apology when this is all over," Herman said of her spouse.

Winkler and Tweten didn't have water in their basements, either. A dike protects their homes to the west, and County Road 31 acts as a natural levee.

"So, we weren't really concerned," Winkler said. "Our neighbors to the east, I think some have lost their battle."

Tweten mused on how the truck ride must have been an adventure for Seung "Joseph" Pyo, the Korean foreign exchange student staying with her family, which consists of husband Bill and sons Alex, 20, and Vinnie, 13.

"What do you think, Joseph?" she asked, pointing out the rear canopy window at the wake of water behind the truck.

The 16-year-old pulled out his ear buds and smiled: "Little bit fun."

"It's awesome," Vinnie said.

As the truck pulled into the muddy parking lot at Harwood Community Center, which serves as the command post for rescues in northern Cass County, Tweten got the attention of the National Guard soldier sitting across from her.

"What is your name?" she asked.

"Jake Burdick," answered the burly man in the camouflaged uniform.

"Thank you, sir, for coming to get us," Tweten said.

The families climbed down from the Guard truck and stepped straight into a Cass County Jail inmate transport bus to be shuttled to West Fargo. Tweten joked that it would hopefully be the "first and last" time her children ever saw the inside of such a bus.

Winkler and Herman planned to stay with relatives in Fargo. Tweten was bringing her family to her mother-in-law's home near Fargo's El Zagal Golf Course - another house close to the Red River.

"We might have to move again, who knows?" she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

A hand up
Verona Winkler hands her 10-month-old son, Cameron, to her mother, Ruth Herman, on Monday shortly after being evacuated from her home in Highland Park north of Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Related Topics: CASS COUNTY
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