Stoic Fargo endures a flood of adversity as Red River crests Hardy Dakotan spirit tested but unbroken in trial by weather


FARGO, N.D. -- When the moment they feared most came and the Red River finally reached its crest yesterday, the town of Fargo was still standing. But people here didn't stop to celebrate. As usual, they worked.

But in between manning water pumps and shoring up dikes, they allowed themselves a newfound luxury: hope. After months of punishing blizzards, ice storms and now floods, this stoic community began to warily believe that its endurance test against the elements may soon be won.

"I compare it to a pregnancy without the good outcome," says Yvonne Gunderson, 34, a homemaker who has volunteered with the flood effort. "It's the same feeling of knowing that labor is coming. It's going to be long and hard, and there's no way out of it."

With the swollen river predicted to stay high for almost two weeks, the town's labor may be a long one. People wonder if their feats of engineering -- the levees, generators and sandbags -- will be strong enough to hold back the water. Even the hardiest question how much more they can take.

"I've lived through quite a few winters but never anything like this," says Lucille VanHunnik, 73, a retired nurse and volunteer at the Red Cross Disaster Relief Center in Fargo. "You try to keep your spirits up and lift others' too, but you get to a point where you feel like you've lost control."

Yet if adversity has made them weary, it has also brought out their resourcefulness and generosity of spirit. In some places, volunteers outnumber need. And neighbors in nearly every community have stories with the same theme: goodwill prevailing in tough times.

But the water -- which was at 37.5 feet, 20 feet above flood level yesterday -- has been blamed for at least eight deaths. The most publicized has been the death of a pregnant woman and her 3-year-old daughter. They were found in a grainfield Wednesday after their car was swept off a bridge south of Fargo.

Janice Self has seen firsthand the brutal power of the Red River. She, her mother and daughter were evacuated from Ada, Minn., a rural community, earlier this week.

"We've been through hell," says Self, 57, who has been staying with relatives. They have returned to Ada once to gather a few belongings. The water was so high that chairs and appliances floated in the basement.

"We're in shock," she says. "We cry, then joke, then cry some more."

Her daughter's eyes fill with tears. "You think it won't happen to you, but when it does you pull together," says Debra Roesch, 35. "It's family that keeps you going."

Ann Looby, a psychologist with the Red Cross effort here, says she's seeing the cumulative effect of what people have been facing -- the stress of a record snowfall that brought about 120 inches this winter, and then spring flooding, the like of which hasn't been seen in this area in 100 years.

"There's anxiety, depression and fear," she says. "The repetitive bracing up wears on people. Then the prolonged preparation for the flood gave them a feeling of empowerment, but it also increased the anxiety. You can live under this kind of pressure for only so long."

Looby, who has been on 15 disasters nationally in the past year, has found that people here are reluctant to ask for help, a vestige perhaps of the pioneer spirit that still exists in the plains. "These are strong people," she says. "They want to say they're going to be OK and they're not as bad off as their neighbors. With them, we talk a lot about being stress managers, not mental-health workers."

Toughing it out

Kathy and Richard Thomas, who live on the riverbank in south Fargo, have been sleeping only a few hours a night and eating candy bars for dinner to devote more time to fending off the floods.

Their home has become a personal flood information center. A police scanner and the radio are on round the clock. The TV is tuned to CNN. And every hour, they chart the rising of the river.

The water is normally 500 feet from their back door. Now it's 15 feet away. A gauge on a maple tree in the back yard indicates the water is nearly 5 feet high.

Toughing it out in their home has brought some inconvenience. The sewer system hasn't worked for nearly a week so they've sealed their drains, washed dishes in tubs and constructed a makeshift toilet out of a plastic 5-gallon bucket.

"We're kind of camping out in our house," says Richard, 47, a shipping clerk.

But so far, their vigilance has paid off for themselves -- and their neighbors. Several nights ago, Kathy awoke at 2 a.m. She had lulled herself to sleep listening to the gurgle of her sump pump but realized now that a sound was missing: The generator next door had stopped.

Her husband raced over and woke his neighbor; the two got the equipment running again as water threatened to wash into the basement. For Richard, it was his latest good deed.

He and hundreds of volunteers have spent days building a dike with 7,000 sandbags around neighbor Scott Kilde's property, which is in a precariously low spot. Neighbors across the street have brought him dinner, and another down the block ordered him to relax in his hot tub while the man stood vigil over Kilde's dike and pumps.

For Kilde, these incidents may not be enough to spare him damage in coming weeks. But they remind him why he lives here.

"I keep telling people I am going to win this thing," says the 40-year-old father of two and Fargo native. "But even if the dike breaks down and the water comes in, I'll still think I've won because I've learned that I live with a wonderful bunch of people."

Outsiders have been surprised by this kindness.

Ryan Moore, a specialist with the Army National Guard who has aided in evacuations, says: "I'm from Minneapolis. People there take care of themselves, but here everybody looks out for everybody else. Once they make it through, they want to help so other people won't have to go through what they did. You hear about this kind of thing, but you don't often see it."

Even Al Gore, who toured the area on Friday, praised the community spirit and promised that the government would join in. "My main message is very simple: You are not in this alone," the vice president said.

Deluge and saturation

L Last week illustrates what people here have been up against.

Heavy rains on Saturday gave way to a blizzard on Sunday, adding more moisture to the already-saturated flat lands. By Wednesday, forecasters were making even more dire predictions about the crest level for the northern-flowing river, adding at least a foot to earlier estimates and sending the city into a frenzy. Then Thursday, they returned to the original figure, blaming a faulty river gauge.

Things had gotten so tense that city operations manager Dennis Walaker choked back emotion as he announced that Fargo would be spared some misery. "I know there are hard days ahead," he said. "But when you look at all the devastation, we're very fortunate."

If there has been a reprieve from all this calamity, it occurred last month when the city held a Hollywood-style party on Oscar night to celebrate the success of the darkly comic film "Fargo." Media camped out here for the festivities, capturing the town's glee when the film went on to win two awards.

Being in the spotlight -- whether for disasters or hit movies -- is an unfamiliar thing for this snow-covered city of roughly 74,000, the largest in North Dakota.

"Before all this, a lot of people didn't know where Fargo was," says Mayor Bruce Furness. "They thought it was just a place up north. But in terms of publicity -- if that's the right word -- we've had lots of it now."

There were signs yesterday that people were ready to begin celebrating. An elementary school was quickly organizing a free pancake breakfast to thank volunteers. And a radio station that devoted itself to all-flood broadcasts advertised a victory rally at the Fargodome later this month.

Kathy and Richard Thomas actually left their house yesterday, the first time in more than a week. "I felt real nervous about it," she says. "We were gone for two hours."

They are now mulling over when to return to work, but that decision will depend -- as all things have lately -- on the mercurial Red River.

"I keep saying in two weeks this will be over," says Richard, glancing at the icy waters. "The grass will be green. The blue jays will come, but sometimes I wonder if summer will ever get here."

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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