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River falls, work goes on in North Dakota

Pipes for a temporary sanitary sewer system rest atop a dike that holds back floodwaters from the Sheyenne River in front of the Rosebud Visitor Center in Valley City, N.D. A UMNS photo courtesy of Mary Lee Nielson.
A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
May 12, 2009

Teachers, students and community members in Valley City, N.D., fill thousands of sandbags in an effort to hold back floodwaters from the Sheyenne River in this April 13 file photo. A UMNS file photo by Michael Raphael, FEMA.

For five weeks, from March 20 to April 24, residents, volunteers and the National Guard filled sandbags in Valley City, N.D., to stop the Sheyenne River from flooding.

By early May, they knew they had succeeded in holding back the water.

“Our river finally went down,” said Avis Richter, city auditor and a member of Epworth United Methodist Church. “We didn’t go below flood stage until May 3.”

Across the state, members of the United Methodist Dakotas Annual Conference, led by Bishop Deborah Kiesey, were among those battling the flood threat in the Red River Valley this spring from rain and melting snow.

Debra Ball-Kilbourne, the bishop’s assistant for disaster response, said the denomination is part of the long-term recovery groups forming around North Dakota, using a concept called Resource Agency Flood Team, created after the devastating 1997 flood in Grand Forks. The team describes itself as a “consortium of agencies devoted to ‘teaming’ resources in an effort to help flood victims recover.”

Directors of the United Methodist Committee on Relief approved a $100,000 grant for the Dakotas Conference for its relief and recovery efforts. The conference, which estimates that more than $250,000 will be needed for flood recovery, had received a $10,000 initial grant from the relief agency.

“We’re still in the very early stages,” Ball-Kilbourne said.

Fighting the swollen river

In Valley City, about 60 miles west of Fargo, Richter and Mayor Mary Lee Nielson, also a member of Epworth, were among the officials who led the effort to force back the swollen river. In the end, the high-water mark of 20.6 feet broke a record set in the 1800s, but the dikes held.

“There was so much water north of us in the watershed area that had to come through,” Richter explained. Some of the nearly 7,000 residents and about 400 National Guard were among the volunteers building the barricades or “walking the dikes” to make sure the sandbags held. 

Epworth United Methodist Church, itself in the flood plain, stayed open to serve the volunteers.  “We became the kitchen for the Salvation Army,” she said. “I felt our church played a very vital role and one I’m very proud of.”
Epworth’s pastor, the Rev. Dan Bader, often called to offer support, she added. “He prayed for us every single day.”

Despite the physical exhaustion, Richter believes the Valley City community held together during the flood battle. “We are a strong, strong people here,” she declared.

The work is not over. Main Street – where the sewer system collapsed – remains closed, although a temporary fix is in place. “We’re working on getting that (system) replaced this summer, which will be a big project,” Richter said.

Besides the sewer project, about 15 percent of the roads must be rebuilt and Nielson would like to shore up the temporary dikes in a more attractive way. “Valley City used to be called the city beautiful,” she said “We don’t qualify now.”

Training set

On May 14-15, the Dakotas Annual Conference will sponsor an initial training for flood team  caseworkers and appraisers at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Jamestown. Another training is set for June.

Flooding from the James River threatens homes in Jamestown, N.D., in this April 26 file photograph. A UMNS file photo by Michael Raphael, FEMA.

Besides the Salvation Army, United Methodists are working with Catholic Charities, Lutheran Disaster Response, the Red Cross, the United Way, the United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other groups on recovery efforts. “Our emphasis is you can get more done if you don’t worry about who gets the credit,” Ball-Kilbourne said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has disaster recovery centers in Valley City, Jamestown, Fargo, Lisbon and Minot.

As of May 5, the federal agency still had more than 400 recovery personnel working in North Dakota, along with another 50 from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Some 3,356 state residents in 33 counties had registered for disaster assistance.

One of the first towns hit by flooding, Beulah, is now into long-term recovery, according to the Rev. Valerie Reinhiller, the conference’s relief coordinator for western North Dakota. About 100 homes were affected, along with city parks, and damage ranged from water in garages to basement cave-ins.

An unmet needs committee for Beulah, the nearby town of Hazen and Mercer County is planning to provide case management to help people get funds and start the process of rebuilding. “The community is working together extremely well. It’s very ecumenical,” Reinhiller added.

In Linton, a town of about 1,100 in Emmons County, more than 100 homes were damaged in an area where a lot of elderly and low-income residents live.

Farmers lose cattle

Farmers also suffered in the flooding, particularly in Emmons County, where one farmer lost more than 100 head of cattle. “A lot of calves have been lost because of the flooding,” Reinhiller added. “Farmers are trying to figure out what they’re going to do and how they’re going to put their livelihood back together.” 

Construction workers rebuild county road 67 near Jamestown, N.D., after it was washed out. A UMNS file photo by Michael Rieger, FEMA.

Trauma can be an issue. Providing spiritual and emotional care is part of the recovery process for the Dakotas Conference. “It is very, very hard to keep up the effort for so long without really showing a lot of stress,” Ball-Kilbourne said.

 In Fargo, for example, “it took 80,000 people to save a community of 90,000,” she said. “When you pull that kind of massive endeavor together, the victims are the ones standing in shock. And some of them did lose their homes.”

Cleanup teams are needed from outside the conference, according to Ball-Kilbourne. “There are millions of sandbags throughout the state to be removed,” she said. Volunteer teams can register with Lorna Jost, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission coordinator for the North Central Jurisdiction, at (605) 692-3390 or send an e-mail to umvim-ncj@brookings.net.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is coordinating donations to assist communities affected by the Red River flooding. Donors may drop checks in church offering plates or mail them directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Write Advance #901670 Domestic Disaster Response, Red River Floods, on the memo line. Credit-card donations can be made online or by calling (800) 554-8583.

*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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