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Essentia workers volunteer vacation time to sandbag

Mary Engels signed up to volunteer at Sandbag Central for a shift today without really pondering her own history with flooding. Then Engels got to thinking about the middle-of-the-night sirens and foghorns, the 15 minutes her family had to evacuate.

Mary Engels signed up to volunteer at Sandbag Central for a shift today without really pondering her own history with flooding.

Then Engels got to thinking about the middle-of-the-night sirens and foghorns, the 15 minutes her family had to evacuate. The memories came back fast.

"Once you experience it, you never forget it," said Engels, who had to flee her home in southeast Minnesota in the late 1970s due to flooding on the Zumbro River. "I didn't know what we'd return to."

While not all of them had as personal connection as Engels, she was one of 240 Essentia Health employees - 130 of them coming in buses from Duluth, Minn., and Brainerd, Minn. - who gathered on Sunday night before planning to work four hours this morning making sandbags in Fargo.

The workers volunteered a day of their own vacation time to pitch in, and Essentia provided hotel space, food and transportation for the out-of-town staffers.

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Pam and Lester Miller, a married couple who work for Essentia Health St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd, said their son is a 2007 graduate from North Dakota State University and they've wanted to help out in previous flood fights in Fargo but never have.

"You do what you can to make things better," Lester Miller said.

Dr. Greg Glasner, an ob-gyn based in Fargo who is the president of Essentia's west region, said the offer was made to employees roughly a week ago and gained momentum quickly.

"It kind of makes your day, when you think about it," Glasner said.

Mayor Dennis Walaker spoke to the crowd Sunday night, saying he hasn't had a chance before to address a crowd of corporate volunteers in a formal manner.

"What do you say, except thank you?" he said.

Essentia is one of many area businesses who have helped arrange volunteers at Fargo's sandbag-making operation, which aims to pre-assemble 3 million bags before spring flooding the National Weather Service predicts has a 1-in-3 chance of topping 2009's record mark of 40.84 feet.

The mayor recalled what happened in the 2009 flood, calling it far more of a surprise than the previous record-setting crest in 1997.

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"Nobody - I repeat, nobody - in the valley knew how close we were going to be in that event," he said.

Walaker made a pitch for the merits of the proposed flood diversion project, but he estimated the odds of it eventually being built at just 40 percent, thanks to what he said was a Congress that grows "more dysfunctional every year."

Walaker - known for his own, often-accurate flood forecasts - wasn't willing to say what he expects this year's crest to reach when jokingly asked to voice a prediction by Tim Ma­honey, the chief of surgery at Essentia Health in Fargo and a city commissioner.

"He's holding back," Mahoney said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

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