Fargo, N.D. -- With the flood waters of the Red River rising to new record heights in the Fargo, N.D. - Moorhead, Minn. area, I was preparing to ride in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter as a photojournalist for the N.D. Air Na¬tional Guard along with national and local news journalists, in an effort to gather aerial photos and video of the dikes and levees holding the water back March 28.
Garrett Hubbard, of USA Today, sitting across from me on the Black Hawk, asked me how I was doing in the flood fight. While my house was in no more danger than many others in the low-lying areas of south Fargo (which was nearly all of it), I couldn't really think of the right words to describe myself in this situation.
Rumors of potentially catastrophic damage to property were becoming common. Evacuations of neighborhoods in surround¬ing communities were already happening. Evacuating the entire city of Fargo (population around 100,000) now seemed possible because of new (even higher) flood water predictions from the National Weather Service.
I found myself wishing that I had bought my flood insur¬ance sooner, as it takes 30 days for it to take effect. The early crest was predicted to happen before the flood insurance would help me starting April 11.
I have covered several disasters while working in the National Guard, including the Hurricane Katrina aftermath along the Missis¬sippi gulf coast and I thought back to all of the captions I have written describing the people and places. Words I used for civilians like victim, survivor or resident didn't really fit.
I had used words for military members like rescuer, humani¬tarian and defender. I hadn't really done anything to help any civilians in this flood fight, yet (and probably wouldn't on duty as a photographer and journalist).
I was at a loss for words because none of the words I had used in the past to describe my photo subjects seemed to fit, either because of timing (since the event was just gaining steam), or because of actions taken.
I had awoken the night before to the alarm¬ing beeping of heavy equipment backing up and dropping off hundreds of pallets of sandbags on the street outside my house, a common occurrence in Fargo - Moorhead neighbor¬hoods during that time. The pallets of sandbags were followed by city buses full of sandbagging volunteers late into the evening. Neighbors helping neighbors.
I thought about stories my friends and co-workers were telling about their personal flood experiences.
"I had just videotaped a neighborhood evacuation and I began following a sandbag convoy being escorted by four city police squad cars and it drove right into my neighborhood," said Master Sgt. Eric Johnson, a 119th Wing broadcast journalist.
"Moments later my wife called and told me that we had re¬ceived a 'CodeRED' automated notification system call from the city telling us that we should start emergency sandbagging near our house. My heart raced," he added.
North Dakota National Guard members in flood areas across the state performed jobs like, providing meals for other military members, in-processing other activated National Guard members, ordering supplies used to fight the floods and making sure radios are issued and working for flood fighters, in addition to the highly visible jobs like sandbag¬ger, dump truck driver and forklift operator.
"I was back home sandbagging a neighbor's house in Adrian, N.D., because of flooding from the James River when I got the call to come work in Fargo," said Sgt. Isaac Boger, of the Det. 3, 815th Engineer Company in Jamestown. Boger is a rancher living near Adrian and another example of the stellar volunteerism and sacrifice shown by the Guardsmen in our organization.
The reality of how dire the situation was came when President Barack Obama declared the entire state of North Dakota a disaster area March 26.
I knew there were people in my organi¬zation that were trying to build protection for their homes in time to block the rising water, which was only a matter of hours in many cases.
Master Sgt. Kimberly Harr, of the 119th Support Group said, "I was working in the Joint Task Force (JTF) east headquarters at the Armed Forces Reserve Center while Jim (hus¬band, Master Sgt. James Harr, of the 119th Op¬erations Support Group) was building a ring-dike around our house."
Sadly, flood water eventually made it into the lower level of the Harr home, like many National Guard home-owners in the area, despite long hours of sandbagging by friends and neighbors. Kim worked in the JTF as Jim pumped the water out.
Most of the children in the Fargo - Moor¬head area in kindergarten through grade 12 attended only 2-3 days of school from March 17 through April 6, and those days were voluntary sandbagging days for grades 8 - 12. The flood has provided a different kind of education for the youngsters of Na¬tional Guard members and civilians alike. When the kids hear dump trucks driving by every two to three minutes to drop loads of clay behind their house - some¬times on the opposite side of their house from the river, they learn new words like 'contingency dike.' Parents explain that the city hasn't given up the fight for their house, but they have to defend the rest of the community if the sandbags between the river and the contingency dike fail. It's a hard concept for adults to grasp as well as children, but necessary.
"It was definitely rewarding to be part of the National Guard's flood-fighting effort. Helping your community during a natural disaster is part of serving in the Guard that hasn't been highlighted as much recently with the war on terrorism going on," said 2nd Lt. Jeffrey Hovdeness, of the 119th Wing, who was also a member of a quick response force team tasked with emergency evacuation of civilians threat¬ened by the flood.
I guess the only words I can use to describe myself during a potential disaster in my community are the same words I use to describe my co-workers -- 'National Guard member.' As National Guard members we do our jobs, whatever they may be, and do our best to protect our homes, families and community at the same time.
My wife, Kelli, has become proficient at plugging all of our lower level floor drains, sinks, tubs and toilets in my absence. She can now remove and replace a toilet stool with the best of them. Oftentimes our family members are left to work on our own homes until we are done with our jobs in the National Guard. I think I can speak for all National Guard members when I say a huge 'thank you' to them!
We can only hope that by doing our jobs in times of crisis, we are filling a role in the National Guard that also helps protect, defend and serve our communities and helps protect our friends and families at the same time.