This winter in Fargo has been rough. We’ve been enduring headlines like this for the past three months: Winter storm to bring snow, colder weather after Christmas, With up to 15 inches of snow expected, Fargo-Moorhead prepares for winter storm, Ground blizzard possible in Fargo-Moorhead area on Wednesday, Thursday; windchill could hit -40, Fargo likely to break February snowfall record set 40 years ago. On March 7 we hit 59 consecutive days of weather below freezing. Contrary to what most people might think, this isn’t a typical Fargo winter. Yes, Fargo gets extreme cold and snow, but we get days and weeks of extreme cold and snow, not months and months of deep freeze. This winter has been unusually long and brutal.
Since March, I’ve been aching for spring. And yes, I’ve been a little jealous seeing friends and family enjoying warm weather and springtime while we’ve been snow blowing our driveways after another dump of snow. Finally, in the last few weeks, all of that nonsense has stopped. But spring hasn’t happened overnight–since breaking out of the deep freeze, temperatures have hovered above freezing only to dip back below again at night. The snow has been stubborn to disappear. In the last few days we’ve finally hit our spring weather and we’re trading in our piles of snow for pools of water.
What you may (or may not) know is that that final, last stretch of slow, painful thaw has been essential to keeping our city from drowning. And even though I’ve been aching for spring, I know that the weather has been exactly what we’ve needed it to avoid what’s been happening to the rest of the country (my heart just breaks for Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota). Today, with our forecasted high of a balmy 59F (15C) the Red River is predicted to crest at 35 feet–not the 40.8 feet of almost catastrophe we experienced our first year in Fargo, but still at major flood stages. The slow spring creep has been exactly what we’ve needed.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this ebb and flow. This slow creep. I feel like it’s how my life with autism, my life with writing, my life of being an adult works. I long for progress. I ache for J to have less anxiety attacks, to be better socially adjusted. I’m itching for my novel to be finally done and out to an agent. I’m ready to be done with teenage hormones and drama. It’s always 2 steps forward, 7 steps back when it seems like everyone else is enjoying their “spring.”
But I’m also learning that this ebb and flow is exactly how life is supposed to work. That it’s a lot of patience and vigilance and ultimately I have no control over the situation. Things are going to work out the way they’re going to work out.
That’s what living in a floodplain has taught me.
So here’s to surviving another flood–here’s to a city who has prepared in all the ways they can to work with what we’ve got, here’s to a great community who steps up every time to help us all keep from drowning. Here’s to well-timed ebbs and flows.
Here’s to spring!
(As I was digging around for old 2009 Fargo Flood pictures, I found an essay I wrote for a weather-themed literary magazine. Of course, it didn’t get published, but if you want to read a bit of it, I’ve included an excerpt from it below. Over 10 years, I’ve forgotten how stressful that event really was.)
Excerpt from “Ymir’s Blood”
Our Noah’s a Viking
Monday, March 23 2009
The river won’t stop rising. It’s caught the whole city off guard, because this isn’t supposed to happen again for another 88 years. Now 80,000 volunteers—almost 90 percent of our city—have morphed into a scrappy, efficient flood fighting machine. And we’ve been at this for three days already. We desperately need 1 million more sandbags before Friday.
I feel more than underqualified. My flood experiences are limited to what I learned as a child in Sunday school while fidgeting in my lacey dress and kicking the heels of my Mary Janes against my folding chair. Over the past few days Steve and I have had a crash course in the art of sandbagging and dike building. Now, sitting in our scrubby, dirty jeans and sweat shirts, we’re glued to the television, watching our city officials hash out contingency plans.
I remember Noah as frail, skinny, tired-looking. A long-bearded prophet man— at least that’s what he looked like in the picture my Sunday school teacher passed around the class. Fargo’s Noah is a Viking. Mayor Dennis Walaker stands at 6’5” tall and sports a well-trimmed grey Van Dyke beard. This broad-shouldered Nordic man could pass as Santa Claus if he wore the right getup. He’s surrounded by the city manager, the vice mayor (wearing a yellow reflector construction vest), a few representatives from the Red Cross, FEMA, and the National Guard. It’s a calm and cordial meeting despite the fact that everyone is beyond exhausted, stressed, and scared. Every official politely takes their turn sharing their concerns.
The city manager steps up to the podium, shuffles a few papers, then leans into the microphone, listing instructions for volunteers and the supplies the city has ready for the community.
Sump pumps, sewage backup, water sanitation stations, lift stations. It’s as if this is an everyday conversation they have, but then the conversation shifts to FEMA and evacuation procedures and I’m reminded how all of this work might just be for nothing. Can a 12-mile wall of sandbags and clay really hold back a river that gains more power every day from runoff and precipitation? I think of the pyramid of tarped sandbags less than a quarter of a mile away from our house, the one we helped shore up a few days ago and our neighbors—on guard, sitting in their camping chairs, the river lapping behind their heads on the other side of the wall, taking turns during the night shifts watching their sputtering and gurgling sump pumps under the electric light of industrial lamps.
“It’s going to work out,” Steve assures me, though I know he’s trying to assure himself too. “Fargo’s done this and won this before.”
Tuesday March 24, 2009
The Red River cutting between Fargo and our sister city Moorhead is still seeping dark, grey water over its banks and into the city with frigid persistence. Flowing north, the Red collects frozen ice chunks and slush that bob and churn in the river flow, souvenirs from the runoff and tributaries to the south.
Scandinavians have their version of how the world was flooded long ago. According to Norse mythology, the great primeval ice giant Ymir was killed by the god brothers Oden, Vili, and Ve. When Ymir died, great torrents of icy water—his blood—poured all over the earth drowning everything. What was left of his body became land and according to that legend, all water on our planet came from Ymir’s blood.
It’s as if Ymir’s story still haunts the Nordic people who immigrated here, the good church going Lutherans, who are quiet, unassuming, and hard working. I know some of my friends can recall the Old Norse mythologies. Their last names carry remnants of those gods or ancient kings such as Thor or Lars. It’s as if you can’t really shake off that cultural, environmental heritage even if you wanted to. Some things just stick.
There were only two survivors in Ymir’s flood. The giant Bergelmir and his wife. That’s the thing about these epic flood stories. Usually only a handful of people survive.
Building Sand Forts
Wednesday March 25, 2009
From the bleachers, the Fargodome floor looks like a humming, giant checkerboard. Large mounds of sand alternate with hundreds of pallets of sandbags, covering the entire length of the indoor football field. Forklifts buzz back and forth replacing full pallets with empty ones while bulldozers continue to feed and refill the sand piles, all while volunteers quickly shovel sand into white polypropylene sacks to produce the one million sandbags the city requires for fortification.
The Red Cross hands out 500 calorie prepackaged cinnamon buns, granola bars, chocolate milk, and bottled water to volunteers. We’ve declared war on the river, and they’re pumping our bodies with water and carbs and caffeine because there’s no time to eat real food. Even though most of the dikes are built up, we need more sandbags because the river keeps getting bigger. Our survival depends on it.
On the front lines the scene isn’t much different. It’s still assembly-line production, except you’re outside in blizzard temperatures and conditions. In the snow and wind, sandbags hop across the arms of the volunteer line until they reach a few leaders who are in charge of quality control of sandbags and placement on the dike.
Homeowners serve sloppy joes, hot chocolate, and coffee to the volunteers diking their property. They thank us profusely, knowing they can’t do this on their own. Some were unable to save their own homes, grey, murky river water still filling their basements, filling their living rooms, but they are determined to save the rest of the neighborhood. They know that despite the loss of their own home there’s the lives and wellbeing of the other 90,000 people to consider. They know the community is more important than the individual.
Despite all of our efforts, every morning the river creeps a little closer.
Ebb and Flow
Thursday, March 26
This morning, a CBS reporter interviews Mayor Walker as street lights reflect off the dark, quiet river yards away. Our Viking leader is tired, you can see it in his eyes and you can hear it in his voice.
“It ebbs and flows,” he says candidly. “You get good news, you get bad news. We got some bad news yesterday at about noon about the flood forecast, we got some bad news last night about some of the river data and so forth, so…people have to understand and we told them last night in an over-filled meeting about the fact that we need to move forward and we need their support.”
It’s a hard line to walk—keeping the troops calm but vigilant. The city needs everyone to keep fighting to make the flood efforts work. People need to keep building and monitoring dikes. But at the same time he knows we might have to give up everything. We might all have to evacuate.
I’ve packed up all of our pictures representing 7 years of marriage and two kids in two boxes. Some are in frames, some are in the photo envelopes. I have some albums, photo cds, and even a few negatives floating around. Since this is the fourth state we’ve lived in in the past eight years we haven’t really accumulated much. I’ve packed our passports, birth certificates, and house title in a backpack, along with some water bottles, tampons, and granola bars. There’s not much more that can fit in our grey little ’98 Camry. Boxes dug up from the basement sit in our living room still waiting to be unpacked from our move six months ago. It’s like we’re still not allowed to settle here yet.
The city has been anxious for days now, people continually moving against the clock and the river. Our neighbors have already sent their dogs away to a kennel outside of Fargo. The elderly and sick have also been moved out as well.
It’s as if the Red River wants to purge us all out of its banks.
Friday March 27
Just as Steve, the kids, and I are ready to sit down to eat dinner, we get the automated “Code Red” phone call. An electronic voice informs us that there was a breach a half block away from our house and they needed volunteers immediately to go fill bags and bag the dike. A vigilant volunteer found a leak.
Steve grabs his boots and leaves before we can discuss anything. I decide I’ll go ahead and finish feeding the kids and make sure we’re ready to evacuate. Even though my heart is racing, I chew my food slowly, and assure my four year old that “nothing’s wrong and that dad just needs to help more people again.”
I wonder if I should put the kids down to bed—just in case we have to leave in the next couple of hours.
I watch TV for the updates on evacuations, my eyes on the ticker tape listing the latest levels of the Red and the communities that are recommended for evacuation. No word on our neighborhood.
Shortly after I finish the dishes, Steve comes home. He’s tired, his clothes stained with sandbags and clay. He tells me the response was phenomenal. Almost everyone in the neighborhood showed up. Sandbags arrived on semis, eight lines of baggers got to work, and within thirty minutes they were able to fix the leak and fortify the dike. We’re safe again. For now. The Red is supposed to crest tonight.
Saturday, March 28 2009
There’s sand in my sheets. It rubs against my scalp as I toss and turn, trying to find that place in the mattress where my body doesn’t ache any more. I run my tongue in my teeth and find it there too, as I curl up next to Steve I feel the sand in his hair against my forehead. Even in our bed we can’t escape the flood fight. In the dark, Steve stumbles out of bed again to check the basement. I hold my breath for another code red call.
As we all lie restless in our beds the river quietly calls retreat a little after midnight. It has reached its crest, and inch by inch—it starts to descend back into its banks.
In the morning, the mayor reminds us that the battle is not over yet, but there is nothing more we can do. There are no more sandbags to fill or dikes to shore up. We as a city—as a community—need to wait and pray that our sandbag efforts will still be able to hold all that water back for the next eight days.