A Story of Pluck, Pride, and Bags of Sand

Tiny Pembina, N.D., defends against a river without banks.

People in this river town are not deluded. They've seen the pictures of houses submerged in Grand Forks, of refugees sleeping in an Air Force hangar, of places where the Red River has become a lake 30 miles wide.

It's no secret, either, that the US Army Corps of Engineers thinks they all should leave, that flood water is lapping at the last dry exit ramp on Interstate 29, and that the snowcap is melting in the April sunshine. Pembina is likely to be a bathtub by Sunday.

But before then, dozens of volunteers will stack 400,000 sandbags and build a five-foot plywood fence atop the town's earthen dike. They'll subsist on ham sandwiches trucked in from nearby towns and work through the night as headlights illuminate the scene.

Pembina turns 200 in July, and its residents want something left to parade through.

"This fight is not over," says Shannon Cosley, trodding through the muddy streets with an armful of bananas and oranges. "Even when ... Even if that water comes over that dike, somebody's going to be here tossing the last sandbag. We know there's a greater force out there, but we're not going down with our hands in our pockets."

Amid the destruction of this millennial flood, which has left nearly 10 percent of North Dakota residents homeless, Pembina's battle with the river will stand as a testament to small-town pride and Midwestern pluck, even if it proves futile.

"It's going to be tough," says Tim Siegle, a volunteer from nearby Cavalier who rode into town on a National Guard troop transporter. "Pembina wants to give it everything they can, but they know the chances of success here are not very good."

Indeed, this story could have ended on Monday night when the Army Corps of Engineers issued a mandatory evacuation order. Most of Pembina's 642 residents cleaned out their houses, and some fled to stay with friends or relatives.

But a group of 20 "hard losers" refused to leave the water's edge. Their tirelessness so impressed North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad (D) that he intervened on their behalf. The amended evacuation order allows volunteers to stay behind until the dike gives way.

At this writing, the Pembina River stands at 54.1 feet. Water from the swollen Red is backing into it slowly, pushing toward an expected crest this weekend of 59 feet. At best, the town's 23-year-old dike will hold back only 57 feet of water.

View from the command post

Hetty Walker doesn't even know what day it is. Like most people here, Pembina's mayor has measured the last four days in inches, rather than hours. She has been anchored to the phones and emergency radios in a command post on the third floor of the elementary school.

There are jugs of water here, cans of food, rows of life preservers, and a motorboat outside that's tethered to the top of the fire escape - just in case. A steady procession of politicians, National Guard troops, relief workers, and bleary-eyed sandbaggers have beaten a muddy trail up the linoleum staircase.

It's ironic, Mayor Walker says, that Pembina should now be facing obliteration by the same rivers that gave it life. This city, first inhabited by fur traders, is the oldest white settlement in North Dakota. Before this flood, she says, residents were busily planning barbeques, softball tournaments, and an all-class reunion to mark the town's bicentennial.

There have been floods before, she says, and the town has rebuilt. There have been floods before, and they have deepened the town's will to survive. "The spirit here is fantastic," she says, flashing a weary smile. "I'm glad I'm the mayor of a town like this."

History in the making

Down along the river, next to the US Customs office, John Johnson carries a load of freshly cut two-by-fours toward workers who are building the plywood dike. The retired postmaster takes measured steps, stopping every few feet to wipe sawdust from his eyes.

He's been working since dawn on a warm April day that would usually call him to his garden. He describes the flood of 1950 as a "holy terror" and recalls the flood of 1979, which almost breached the dikes. He's never seen water this high before, but one thing remains the same.

"The faces have changed, but the spirit hasn't," he says. "I'm not a bit surprised that everybody is pitching in like this. How else do you think a town gets to be 200?"

Along the dike east of town, a cluster of 25 volunteers, most of them wearing knee-high waders, await the next forklift-load of sandbags. Volunteers in nearby Grafton have been filling them for three days straight, and drivers have been hauling them here on donated semis.

It's a haggard group. Few have shaved or showered. Some have already worn holes in their gloves.

But everyone seems to have a reason why they'll never leave Pembina.

Vic Stubeny loves the fact that he can represent the town on its softball, basketball, pool, and darts teams. John Cleem moved back here from Kansas City after 25 years because he longed for a place where he wouldn't have to lock his doors. Lee Jarus talks about the plumpness of the local catfish.

None of them says anything about quitting.

"That's just the way things are done around here," says Brian Boeddeker, a Pembina County sheriff's deputy. "People have a pioneering spirit, a fighting spirit. Even if the water pours in, we'll still have to come and get 'em."

Ways to Support Midwest Flood Relief Efforts

* A sampling of organizations that are providing food and shelter and will accept donations to support their efforts:

North Dakota Community Foundation 800-605-5252

Salvation Army 800-SAL- ARMY

American Red Cross 800-HELP NOW

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