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Guard Soldiers, Airmen Use Familiar Barriers to Dam Rising Floodwaters

By Army Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds
Special to American Forces Press Service

FARGO, N.D., March 26, 2009 – While deployed in Iraq, the towering Hesco barriers that ringed the base became a familiar sight to Army Spc. Ryan L. Karsky.

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A North Dakota Army National Guard dump truck gets a load of clay to haul to low areas where earthen dikes will be created in an effort to block rising flood waters of the Red River in Fargo, N.D., March 24, 2009. DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp

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These large, modular steel baskets, lined with a fine, mesh material, held compacted desert sand, gravel and chunks of concrete. They served as an effective shield against hostile fire and shrapnel.

Now back home in North Dakota, Karsky, a member of the North Dakota Army National Guard’s 817th Engineer Company, has found a different use for the trusty barriers. He was among about 50 Guard soldiers and airmen constructing miles of Hesco barriers along low-lying parts of Fargo, which is dealing with major flooding.

For many of south Fargo's most flood-prone neighborhoods, the Hescos are all that stand between the homes and the rising Red River.

"I saw them all the time in Iraq," Karsky said, "but I never ever thought we'd be using them to fight a flood. I thought we'd be over here throwing sandbags."

Sandbag dikes were the protection of choice back in 1997, the last time the Red River seriously threatened the Fargo area and before many of the citizen-soldiers and -airmen working the dike lines today were even Guardsmen.

Army 1st Sgt. Curtis W. Kaseman, also of the 817th, remembers the 1997 flood fight well. And as an Iraq war veteran, he's another soldier who had come to appreciate the Hescos for the protection they offered in a combat zone.

Kaseman, of Jamestown, N.D., said the Hesco barriers in Iraq were much larger -- some as high as 20 feet -- than the 3-foot versions being used in Fargo this week. The barriers are lined with plastic to help hold back the impending wall of water.

"They are not new technology as far as fighting floods is concerned, but they definitely are new around here since 1997," Kaseman said.

Representatives of Hesco Inc. said the barriers were designed primarily for flood control and to impede hillside erosion. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan opened up a new use for the barriers.

What makes the barriers so beneficial is the speed at which they can be constructed compared to traditional sandbag efforts. Company specifications claim that what would take a crew more than 70 hours to do with sandbags can be done in about 30 minutes with Hesco barriers.

As the Guarsmen set up and fill the Hescos, it is a race against the clock and the swelling river. The members of the Jamestown-based 817th have been placed on active-duty orders and sent to Fargo to fight the flood.

They join more than 800 North Dakota Guard soldiers and airmen, most of whom volunteered, for the statewide flood-fighting efforts. All are working alongside civilian contractors, businesses and homeowners to hold the high ground.

Before his unit was activated, Army Spc. Brett M. Steele was a Guard volunteer already involved in flood fighting in central North Dakota, near Beulah. He said it was hard to just pick up and leave.

"But this is where we need to be now," Steele said. "My only hesitation in all of this is that I had to move from one spot in need to another one."

Army Spc. Jordan J. Nygaard, also with the 817th, said he was amazed by the rapid-fire pace of the dike work going on around him this week. The soldiers kept the Hesco assembly line humming, as a parade of dump trucks supplied fresh clay and dirt to the site near Fargo's Lindenwood Park. A fleet of Bobcat loaders, driven by civilian contractors, filled the Hescos as quickly as they were set up.

"It's kind of intriguing to see nine Bobcat loaders working so quickly within a distance of one city block," Nygaard said. "There's a lot of moving parts. You have to watch out."

Gary Boatman, a Fargo resident whose mother lives near Lindenwood Park, was in the area and saw the work being done by the Guard. He wanted to help, so he brought his own Bobcat loader to the fight, complete with a cardboard sign that said, "Tell me what to do!"

"It's not just these neighborhoods that appreciate what the Guard is doing for us -- it's the whole city of Fargo," Boatman said, between hauling loads.

On Fargo's north side, flood fighting was in full effect yesterday morning.

Because of the terrain in the area, Hesco barriers could not be used, said Army 1st Lt. John W. Peyerl, a volunteer from the 136th Combat Service Support Battalion in Grand Forks.

Peyerl said about 130 Guard soldiers and airmen were forming a chain to move sandbags and place them about 2 feet high.

"They're a little sore out there today, but I don't think any of them are sorry they signed up for this," Peyerl said. "This is what they want to be doing, and they are out having a good time."

Air Force Staff Sgt. Elliot Steinbrink, with the North Dakota Air Guard's 119th Wing, had more on his mind than some of the other volunteers on the sandbag line. His home is only blocks away from the river.

"It makes me nervous, but everyone needs the help, not just me," Steinbrink said. "When you're working as a National Guardsmen, it means something. People recognize that and it feels good."

(Army Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds serves with the North Dakota Army National Guard.)

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Related Sites:
National Guard Bureau

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Guard Fights Flooding in North Dakota
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNorth Dakota National Guard members join civilian flood-fighting volunteers who pack the floor of the Fargo Dome in an effort to fill sandbags used to block the rising waters of the Red River in Fargo, N.D., March 24, 2009. DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Staff Sgt. Jamie Frankl, of the 219th Security Forces Squadron, directs traffic so flood-fighting dump trucks can pass through intersections during the morning rush hour in Fargo, N.D., March 24, 2009. Dikes are being constructed to hold back the rising water of the Red River. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp  
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