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United Methodists monitor Dakota floods


2:30 P.M. EST March 23, 2010

The Red River overflows
 its banks at Lindenwood Park in Fargo, N.D. Photos by Michael 
The Red River overflows its banks at Lindenwood Park in Fargo, N.D.
Photos by Michael Rieger/FEMA.
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Remembering their experiences with record flooding last year, United Methodists in North and South Dakota are watching river levels and assessing snowmelt.

The Red River – which crested at 9 feet above flood level March 21 – has been kept largely under control in Fargo by dikes, but if major flooding does occur, the church is ready, said the Rev. Debra Ball-Kilbourne, the bishop’s assistant for disaster response in the United Methodist Dakotas Annual (regional) Conference.

 “We did a lot of training last year, and we’re better prepared as a result of that training,” she explained.

The conference, which handled 400 long-term flood recovery cases in North Dakota for 2009, has formed partnerships with the United Methodist Committee on Relief and local faith groups, as well as with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and city governments.

Training through UMCOR was particularly helpful, Ball-Kilbourne said. “UMCOR doesn’t just provide stuff so it has to come back time and time again. It really does prepare you to prepare others, who can prepare others. That paid off nicely for us.”

Being more prepared also means helping people deal with the stress of disaster situations. Last year, the Rev. Mark Ellingson was part of an interfaith committee that dealt with the emotional and spiritual well-being of flood victims. “Out of that came a recurring theme of resilience, the ability to bounce back and adapt,” he said.

With assistance from mental health specialists, the committee developed a PowerPoint presentation and other materials related to mental health, and it wants to promote the resources widely.

“God created us to be resilient, and we have ways to reawaken that and recreate it within us,” Ellingson said.

Rising waters

In a March 19 message to the conference, Bishop Deb Kiesey acknowledged the concerns of church members as warmer temperatures and melting snow lead to rising waters.

Students fill bags at
 “Sandbag Central” in Fargo, as the Red River rises above flood stage.
Students fill bags at “Sandbag Central” in Fargo, as the Red River rises above flood stage.
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“I know that for many of you, this is the second time in a year you have had to face these worries.  I want you to know that you are not alone in this struggle against nature,” she wrote. 

“The thoughts and prayers of the people of the Dakotas Conference and across The United Methodist Church are being offered on your behalf.  We stand beside you and offer ourselves and our resources as you face the days ahead.”

By March 23, the Red River had dropped slightly in Fargo to 36.02 feet, according to the National Weather Service, and it was expected to continue to recede throughout the week. Flood level is at 18 feet.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate visited North Dakota on March 22 to observe the response to Red River flooding and meet with the governor and other officials. He had met with officials from Minnesota and South Dakota two days earlier.

Across the Dakotas, the extent of any flood damage will not be evident for another two weeks or so. “We are grateful that everything is holding beautifully,” Ball-Kilbourne said.

Minimal damages are expected in western North Dakota. In the east, observers are monitoring the ice jams in the Park River. In central North Dakota, “we are still watching carefully Jamestown and Devil’s Lake and the reservation areas,” she added. “Those will be the last to flood.”

Overland flooding

 The Rev. Paul Baker, Dakotas disaster response coordinator and pastor of Evergreen United Methodist Church in Wahpeton, N.D., reported widespread overland flooding in both eastern North and South Dakota.

“The area of North Dakota around the Red River is about as flat as a pancake,” he explained, “and as of this moment, 12 of North Dakota’s highways and countless county and township roads have water over them. Once the water starts moving overland, there is very little to stop it.”

He agreed that preparations resulting from the lessons learned in 2009 have paid off. “Many of the homes that had flood damage from last year are much better protected this year,” he said.  “We still don’t have any idea of what the damages will be this year, as we still have a lot of snow on the ground that hasn’t melted yet.”

Baker is optimistic about the situation in Wahpeton, at the head of the river, but cautioned that the Fargo-Moorhead area is not yet out of danger. The Red River runs north into Canada and still has not reached its crest for most of its length, he noted.

Northeastern South Dakota also has the potential of flooding because the snow cover is heavier than last year. The town of Aberdeen put out a call for sandbagging help March 22, Baker said.

The biggest concern for the conference is at the United Methodist camp in Lake Poinsett, S.D. The lake level “was 3 feet over what they consider to be full” on March 22, Baker said, and it was expected to keep rising, which will endanger the camp’s cabins.

Camp Director Steve Foss needs volunteers to fill and place about 5,000 sandbags over the weekend of March 27. He can be reached by telephone at (605) 983-5547 or e-mail at LPC@dakcamps.org.

Donations to UMCOR can be made to U.S. Disaster Response and designated for UMCOR Advance #901670. For more information, go to UMCOR’s Web site.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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