Guard Fights Floods in North Dakota, Three Other States
By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va. , March 26, 2009 The next few days will be critical as North Dakota braces for record-setting Red River water levels, officials in the affected area said today.
A National Guard task force brought strong communication with other agencies and the physical effort of 1,200 citizen-soldiers and -airmen to a fight against time.
"The biggest issue is if the dike breaks," Army Col. James Hrdlicka, commander, Joint Task Force East, said by telephone from Fargo, N.D., the state's largest city, with about 100,000 residents facing potentially disastrous flooding.
"It's supposed to crest approximately this Saturday," Hrdlicka said, emphasizing that weather forecasting is an uncertain art. "One or two days -- don't take this for gospel -- during that time frame is when it's going to be critical that that thing holds. Once it starts to subside, once we get to that point and nothing has given way or it's still holding, then we should be OK."
North Dakota was at the epicenter of a four-state struggle against the elements, while three others had their hands full as well.
In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty was submitting an expedited major disaster declaration request as about 430 Guard members distributed sandbags, provided security at sandbagging sites, patrolled dikes, secured pumps and
In South Dakota, Guard members helped the state's transportation department remove snow after severe snowfall March 23 fell on Sturgis and Rapid City, forcing the closure of Interstate 90 from the Wyoming border to Chamberlain.
In Montana, National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters provided search and rescue assistance after transportation workers were unable to breach heavy snow and ice to reach stranded motorists following the March 23 snowstorm.
Hrdlicka and his soldiers and airmen found themselves facing some of the storm's severest tests after the melt from accumulated snow and ice threatened to swell the Red River to levels not seen in living memory.
"Our presence helps," Hrdlicka said. "It makes people feel a little more comfortable."
Guard members assisted with evacuations and traffic control, lined up to place sandbags that strengthened levees, and provided aerial surveillance. North Dakota troops, in particular, provided personnel and resources to key flood-fighting areas. They filled, stored and distributed sandbags; patrolled dikes; broke ice jams; provided security; operated traffic control points; and helped stranded citizens threatened by flood waters.
The National Guard was contributing to a team effort that included the state's Emergency Operations Center working at its highest activation level, a Red Cross shelter opening, a private engineering company blasting ice in Bismarck, and local law enforcement and other rescue workers out in force.
"The most important thing is communicating and being with the city officials and their [Emergency Operations Center]," Hrdlicka said. "When we're out doing missions, the soldiers and airmen are side by side with the citizens."
The Red River previously reached about 39 feet in 1997, the commander said. "If it gets over 39 1/2, something like that, then this will be one of the biggest events in this area. The entire state is seeing flooding that many people really haven't seen in places that normally don't."
Some Guard members were on duty even though their own homes were at risk. "If there is a situation at their house, they come off state active duty and go take care of that," Hrdlicka said. "A lot of them come back."
Joint Task Force East serves the Red River Valley, where the river flows north from the border with South Dakota to the Canadian border. Wahpeton is the first community in the river's progress from the southern part of the state. It flows north through Fargo, the Grand Forks and numerous communities on up to Canada.
"We will be following this all the way up to Canada," Hrdlicka said. "We had a call for volunteers. We had real short notice. Within 24 hours, we had 200. They step up, they really do. The attitude is really good. It's snowing out. We had freezing rain last night. The roads are slippery.
Visibility isn't that great. We've got folks out there on traffic control points and building dikes and putting up barriers, and their attitude is good. They have a sense that they're helping somebody, and that really makes a difference."
(Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill serves at the National Guard Bureau.)