Flood fightersIf this were a normal week the seven students who gathered in a Farmington basement Monday wouldn’t have been anywhere near their hometown. They’d be four hours away studying biology or business, English or engineering.
By: Nathan Hansen, The Farmington Independent
If this were a normal week the seven students who gathered in a Farmington basement Monday wouldn’t have been anywhere near their hometown. They’d be four hours away studying biology or business, English or engineering.
But this isn’t a normal week, at least not for these students. For them, life hasn’t been anything resembling normal for at least two weeks. And nobody seems quite sure when it’s going back.
The seven Farmington High School graduates are currently students at Concordia College in Moorhead. And while many of their former Tiger classmates are thinking about spring break or sweating out approaching finals, they are sitting at home and wondering just when it will be safe for them to return to school. Worrying about the mess they might find when they return.
The students, along with the rest of the Concordia student body, were told to evacuate late last week. But their lives were disrupted well before that. The March 26 evacuation order came after the students had spent four, five or six days filling sandbags and building dikes in hopes of holding back a rapidly advancing Red River. It was hard work — long, exhausting days that left them aching and in some cases physically ill — but as they talk about the experience now, it becomes clear that what they got out of the experience was a whole lot more significant than what they put in.
The students talk about the faith in humanity they gained as they watched people put aside their lives and do everything they could to help. About the satisfaction of helping complete strangers protect their homes and all their possessions. And, especially among the younger students, about finding a sense of belonging that they hadn’t so far in their first big steps away from home.
“Now that this has happened I feel so much part of this community,” said Alison Peine, a freshman at Concordia.
There was never much question about whether the students would get involved. Nearly everybody in the Fargo-Moorhead area who was able to lift a shovel or carry a sandbag played a role in building the massive walls needed to protect the cities from the river’s record crest. Those who couldn’t do any heavy lifting provided food or other refreshments. The students worked alongside tough-looking inmates from a nearby jail who shoveled sand into bags held open by 4-year-old children.
“You’ve got girls out there that, you don’t know which weighs more — them or the sandbag,” said Nate Rowan, a 2005 FHS graduate who took a couple of years off before enrolling at Concordia, where he is a sophomore.
At times the students worked 13-hour days and returned to dorms where the halls were lined with clothes too filthy to be brought into students’ rooms. Junior Laura Rahman, a resident advisor in one of the dorms, said the rule was that students had to have the clothes out of the halls by the time they went to bed, but that rarely happened. They were more worried about getting out and working more hours than they were about cleaning up after themselves.
Nobody had to look far to be reminded of the stakes of their work. They could stand on their makeshift dikes and watch as the river crept closer. They could work all day in an area, then return the next day to find it unrecognizable because the water had advanced.
They worked through difficult conditions — rain and snow and mud and muck. But they rarely felt the discomfort of the conditions until they were done.
“It’s probably the only area in the world where you can get a blizzard, a rainstorm and 55 degrees within four days,” said Ryan McAdam, a freshman.
The work was disheartening at times. The river’s forecast peak was raised several times last week, and each change meant taller walls were needed. Adding one foot of height, McAdam said, meant adding a million more sandbags.
“When you keep getting news like that, you keep getting deflated,” Rahman said.
The students kept working, though. Four days after placing their last sandbag, the students are still sore. The muscles in their backs still knotted. A student jokes that the Concordia football team won’t have to worry about its weight training program for a while.
“I keep saying, this area is going to be the strongest area,” Peine said.
The pain will fade, though. All of the students know they have memories that will last a lifetime.
“It brings back your faith in the human spirit to get things done if you really have to,” McAdam said.
Through it all there’s been uncertainty. Students didn’t know the status of their classes. The school would send e-mails, but students couldn’t get those because they were out working all day. They got text messages from the school, but those just told them to check their e-mail. The students didn’t know for certain until Wednesday night that the campus would be evacuated.
Now that they are home, the uncertainty continues. Coverage of the flooding is much harder to find here than it was in Moorhead. Sophomore Ashley Grabowski said she’s become obsessed with the Weather Channel as she looks for updates about what streets are under water. What dikes held. Others spend a lot of time on Internet news sites.
Nobody’s sure yet what their school schedule will be like when they return. For now, at least, they are scheduled to resume classes April 6. But nobody’s quite sure what that will mean. The school has told students to keep up with their schoolwork, but that has proved difficult. As students packed hurriedly for the trip home school books were the last of their priorities.
Peine is pretty sure she left behind a fetal pig for a science class that’s going to be pretty unpleasant when she finally returns to the lab.
“I don’t even remember what I was learning about,” McAdam said.
Talking to friends and family here about what they went through at school is difficult.
“The people back home don’t fully understand,” Rowan said. “You can’t describe the situation up there. I’ve never seen an area come together so quickly.”
Friends who are attending school elsewhere joke that they’re lucky to have an extra week off. But while they enjoy the fresh water and showers that were not available to them at school most of the students wish they could be back on campus helping. Friends’ facebook updates about pre-test jitters or other things suddenly seem trivial.
More than one student talks about feeling more like an adult now.
“I think this was the moment where I was like, ‘OK, I’ve grown up,’” Rowan said. “I know what’s important in life now and I know what I want to accomplish.”