RHS grads are flood fighters
Chuck Officer got an unexpected break from school last week. He probably needed the rest.
Last week's inactivity was a sharp contrast to the week the Rosemount High School graduate had at the end of March, when he joined a few thousand others in a desperate fight to protect Fargo and Moorhead from the rapidly advancing Red River. Officer, a senior this year at Concordia College in Moorhead, spent more than 40 hours from March 22-26 filling and placing sandbags in an effort to preserve the homes of people he might never meet.
Concordia was one of many schools in the Fargo-Moorhead area, that canceled classes so students could help.
"It was one of those things where anyone who felt like they just didn't want to help would have been looked down on," Officer said. "The campus was completely deserted, so if you were walking around without dirt on your hands or on your pants people would look at you like, 'Why are you so special? Why aren't you out helping?'"
Officer, along with most of the rest of the Concordia student body, was told to evacuate March 26 after the sewer started to back up. But his school life was disrupted well before that. When reports started coming in of a river crest coming sooner and higher than expected there was little choice but to jump into action. Starting on Sunday, Officer worked to protect the neighborhood where his roommate lives. Most days he worked from 8 a.m. until after dark, through rain and snow and cold.
Nobody felt the exhaustion much while they were working -- there was too much to do -- but Officer said late last week his arms were still sore more than a week after he'd placed his last sandbag.
"During the day you're pretty much focused on what you're doing," Officer said. "The homeowners are obviously pretty stressed out. It's when you go home at night and you look at your shoes ... and you're all covered with dirt and you have to go wash it. You go, 'Look at what I was doing.'"
The urgency of the situation became increasingly obvious as the week went on. Officer's roommate lives four houses from the river. When they showed up for their first day of work the entire yard was empty. So was the neighbor's. It seemed ridiculous to think flooding would ever be a problem, Officer said. But that changed quickly. By Thursday, the water was right at the back door.
"His yard is probably a good half an acre," Officer said. "It's a good chunk of space, and the entire thing had filled up, all the way to the edge of the house."
Targets changed as the week went on, too. Forecasts of the flood's crest changed and dikes had to be built higher. For every foot a dike went taller, it had to go two feet wider. That's a lot of sandbags.
It was disheartening at times to have that moving target, Officer said, but everyone knew there was no choice but to keep working.
"They can't really move their house," Officer said. "Everyone feels, well, this is what we have to do. We're not going to give up on it."
Officer is back at school now, but he's hardly back to normal. With a second, potentially higher crest expected sometime this month the sandbag walls remain in place. And even after the water subsides there is a whole lot cleaning up to do.
Things were a little calmer 70 miles north in Grand Forks, N.D. That's where RHS graduate Stephanie Gubbels is a sophomore at the University of North Dakota.
The river crest was higher in Grand Forks, but the city was never in as much danger as Fargo and Moorhead.
That didn't mean people didn't get nervous, though.
"We didn't really know what to expect," Gubbels said. "I had a girl in one of my classes ask if I had protected my valuables. I looked at her like, 'What are you talking about?' because the university is completely safe."
Gubbels said she spent about six hours helping with sandbagging efforts. She was back in class by last week.