Red River Flood, Fire Ravage Town;
Thousands Left Homeless
By Judy Vaughn –
For months to come, Salvation Army officers and volunteers from the Western Territory and throughout the country will travel to Northern Midwest states to assist in flood recovery efforts. What they will find is a river that runs north instead of south, and exhausted communities determined to survive.
To date, more than 30 people from the Western Territory have flown to the Midwest to help. They’ve left a trail of hard work and good wishes in their wake, ranging from small communities on the Minnesota River to Fargo, North Dakota, up the Red River to Grand Forks and Crookston, and finally to Pembina, a town on the Canadian border where Service Extension volunteers are working in The Salvation Army’s name.
It is not just the Red River that devastated towns like Grand Forks, N.D. Record cold, ice storms and blizzards came one on top of another throughout the winter. The “500 year flood” arrived after months of hardship and enormous volunteer efforts.
City officials anticipated flood waters of 48 feet in Grand Forks. To hold the river back, volunteers piled 2.2 million sandbags on the banks and around their houses and shops. In the end, the water rose to 54 feet, breaking the dikes and sending people into shelters at Grand Forks Air Force Base, 15 miles out of town.
During that first critical week, The Salvation Army served food and managed the largest of three bays in an airport hangar. On the first night, 739 people slept fitfully in an area crammed full of Army cots, baby beds, wheel chairs and oxygen tanks. For days after, cadets from the Central Territory got a crash course in disaster ministry.
Ironically, in five feet of water in the heart of downtown, fire destroyed 11 buildings the next day. For 12 hours, firefighters fought a blaze in a current so cold and so strong they could barely stand up. There was a real danger of hypothermia.
Knowing the traditional relationship of The Salvation Army and firefighters, a SATERN (Salvation Army Team Emer-gency Radio Network) volunteer called the fire station to find out if they had food. When he found they did not, he arranged with the National Guard to take in hot chili and sandwiches. A two and a half ton (“deuce and a half”) truck took supplies through deserted streets filled with water. It was an eerie ride through a ghost town of stranded cars and empty houses.
The exhausted firefighters were extremely grateful. “Whenever we have a fire and we’re cold,” said Battalion Chief Jerry Anderson, “The Salvation Army is always right there.”
In the beginning days, Salvation Army National Coordinator of Disaster Ministry Major David Dalberg noted a major difference between this and other disasters. Usually, The Salvation Army quickly sets up a voucher system with local merchants to help victims purchase supplies and immediately looks for a warehouse to store donations.
In Fargo, for instance, a central warehouse had become the nerve center for supplies to be distributed in North Dakota and Western Minnesota. Lt. Danial Williams of San Rafael, Calif., says 40 van loads of supplies came in the Saturday he was working there.
In Grand Forks, however, stores were closed. The town was deserted. Ware-house owners were hard to reach. Realtors were gone. The search for supplies and space took much longer than usual.
When 240,000 pounds of cleaning supplies from Minneapolis donors arrived on a Northwest Airlines Boeing 747 at the end of the first week, the Army had established one warehouse at the airport in full view of all people coming and going out of town. In the next days, volunteers readied 80,000 square feet of warehouse space in a downtown mall. The waters were receding. Neighborhood by neighborhood, people were being allowed back into their homes.
“I saw a family standing on the street in front of their house, crying,” reported one cadet. “They were afraid to go in and see how much damage had been done. We stood there, crying.”
“I didn’t talk to anyone for three days. I guess it was my way of mourning,” said a young man, newly divorced. “The pictures of my kids when they were little are all gone, all the good times we had together. Now it’s all gone.”
As the flooding moved north to Canada and the Hudson Bay, Salvation Army volunteers helped with cleanup efforts in dozens of smaller communities. On the day President Bill Clinton arrived to see the damage, Mayor Kal Michel of Breckenridge, Minn., pushed his way through the crowd to thank Major Dave Dalberg for The Salvation Army’s tremendous efforts in his town of 3,700 people, many of whom–even in normal times–live on marginal incomes.
“What happens to families whose houses and livelihoods and very lives are washed away? The water is contaminated. Houses are shot. Say you’re talking about a 52-year old man who’s a manual laborer. He’s lost his home and everything he’s got. What if he has kids still at home, kids in high school? What does he do? Where is his paycheck?”
The Western Territory is committed to sending officer and volunteer assistance to help recovery and restoration efforts in these communities. As a reminder of past disasters and the long-term effects of this ministry, it was a welcome sight to see the Seattle-King County Disaster Team hard at work in the Grand Forks Air Force Base shelter. In 1985, they worked with the Salvation Army in Colonia Morelos in Mexico City, following a major earthquake. Then, they were an ad hoc emergency medical team. Today they–like The Salvation Army–are an established disaster team ready to go wherever needed.