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Flood waters 'devastate' Fargo school

The North Dakota campus is swamped, although the Red River continues to recede. Fargo's mayor says it's a 'wake-up call.'

March 30, 2009|Ashley Powers

MOORHEAD, MINN. — Whenever Terri Walker faced disaster, she turned to God.

When her husband battled leukemia. When she helped clean up after Hurricane Katrina. And now, with her waterfront home of 21 years probably destroyed by the Red River.

So on Sunday, she and her husband, Duane, sought solace at their church, Trinity Lutheran, in Moorhead.

"We wanted to be in the company of other believers," she said, fingering a chain with a gold cross. "They know your plight and they pray for you, and that's going to get us through the next few months."

Across the waterlogged towns of North Dakota and Minnesota, residents weary from a weeklong fight against an obstinate river searched for strength in sermons and Biblical verse.

The National Weather Service said the river probably would remain below 41 feet, and on Sunday it ebbed below 40 feet. But a snowstorm was marching into the region. If the weather stays cold, the levees should be enough, officials said. But if that snow were to turn to rain, or if winds were to stir the roiling river into waves, water could flow over the barriers and weaken or destroy them.

Days ago, the weather service had expected the river to crest as high as 43 feet -- the height of the primary levees.

Strong winds, and a river running three times faster than normal, could further stress the barriers of earth, clay and sand, which must withstand high water for days. Because the area is so flat and the soil so saturated, the river has little place to drain. It's akin to ice cubes pooling on a plate as they melt.

On Sunday, officials in Fargo, N.D., felt confident enough to discuss when they might reopen stores and schools, but they also resumed efforts to stockpile sandbags. Neighborhoods in Fargo and across the river in Moorhead were still evacuated. Moreover, few families in the region own flood insurance, the Associated Press reported.

Fargo officials said five homes had been lost -- far fewer than had been feared. More homes were thought to have been destroyed in Minnesota and in rural Cass County, N.D., where some folks were stranded amid lakes of icy runoff. North Dakota authorities said two people had died from cardiac problems and 62 had been injured.

At a news briefing in Fargo, officials began with a prayer and a warning. About 1:15 a.m., water had slipped under a permanent steel barrier at Oak Grove Lutheran School, swamping two of five buildings.

"What happened this morning . . . was a wake-up call to the general public," said Mayor Dennis Walaker. More levees probably would breach over time, he said, and the threat showed the necessity of building a multimillion-dollar flood-control system.

School President Bruce Messelt tried to find deeper meaning in his campus' woes. The school's second, hastily built barrier might have saved surrounding homes, he said.

"We feel God has a plan," he told reporters.

Meanwhile, churchgoers in Moorhead -- a city of 35,000 that appears harder-hit than Fargo -- found their faith in the strained levees.

Cheryl Beech, 49, a diabetes nurse educator, moved here just months after the devastating 1997 flood. She and her husband bought a home several blocks from the river, figuring that their flood risk was low.

Through Thursday, her 18-year-old daughter, Alison, was packing sandbags for other people's homes 10 hours a day.

"She would have been sandbagging Friday," Beech said, "but we were being evacuated."

Now, more than a foot of water has pooled on her street, and there's no barrier to stop it. Beech is staying with another Trinity Lutheran family. She fought back tears during Sunday's service, where dozens prayed for evacuees, volunteers, caretakers of the elderly and ill, and folks tirelessly watching the levees.

Trinity Lutheran Pastor Steve Wold was ministering in Grand Forks, N.D., during the 1997 flood, when hundreds of homes were inundated and a fire ripped through downtown buildings. Wold returned to a church where water lapped onto pews and ornate wood carvings broke apart.

At a wedding soon after, a flower girl got locked in a portable toilet and stained her white dress with muck. For a wedding party initially reluctant to use the damaged church, he said, finding the girl put things in perspective.

"Suddenly, the sanctuary was filled with the joy of Jesus," Wold told Trinity congregants, who held hands and swallowed hard.

Walker's Rivershore Drive ranch house has a walk-out basement and a swath of green that deer and wild turkeys frequent. A 38-foot-tall earthen dike had protected it -- until the Red River swelled to historic levels. Even with thousands of sandbags, she said, "the leaks were too much for the pumps we had."

She fled her home last week, with water gurgling below her living room windows and her piano propped up on paint cans. The home probably could not be salvaged, she said.

Walker, 57, a medical technologist, has found herself praying in snippets.

"But you feel people's strength, and that's God," she said, interrupted by parishioners offering hugs and help.

Walker weathered her husband's bone marrow transplant in the mid-1990s.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, she rummaged through a drawer of rats for an elderly woman's prized pearl necklace, she recalls.

"We've been through crises when God feels a million miles away," she said, expecting this too to challenge her faith. But she keeps returning to a passage in Philippians, Chapter 4:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice.

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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