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A National Guard forklift with an extendable boom carries to volunteers a pallet of sandbags that were needed to quickly build a half-mile-long levee Sunday to protect Hendrum. An earthen dike, at the center, is protecting the southern side of the city from the river water at top right. (Dave Wallis/The Forum)

Hendrum races to save city

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Hendrum races to save city
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

HENDRUM, Minn. - The Red River caught this community 30 miles north of Moorhead by nasty surprise Sunday.

With ice jams impeding its advance downstream, the river swelled rapidly, from the base of the 5-foot dike surrounding Hendrum to just a few inches shy of its top.

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The rise - three days before a projected crest of just over 40 feet - yielded a desperate call for volunteers and a scramble to build a half-mile of sandbag reinforcements. Sandbaggers from this town of roughly 350 and from across the region geared up to work through the frigid night to finish the higher line of defense.

"We need to save our town, and everybody's here to help," said Mayor Curt Johannsen. "It's amazing how people pull together in a time of need."

It was supposed to be a relaxing Sunday after days of ferrying sandbags to rural properties outside the town's dike. But then, dike monitors reported that the Red was gaining on the dike at unprecedented speed.

Shortly after noon, the city sounded its fire siren, which brings community volunteers to the downtown fire station turned flood fight command center within minutes. City officials took their plea to the airwaves, and before long, volunteers arrived from Crookston, Grand Forks and Fargo-Moorhead.

At the bustling command center, a sign reads "Flood Fight 97" and "We accomplished." It's a gift from a National Guard team that spent a month here, helping build a sandbag dike to ward off floodwaters from the Red and Wild Rice rivers, which meet up a mile north of town.

The town was entirely surrounded by water, but it didn't lose a single home.

The earthen dike setting it off on all sides was built after that flood. And until late Sunday morning, city officials thought it would hold off the surging Red, which has spilled a mile outside its basin.

"We thought we had at least 2 feet to spare," said Johannsen.

By late afternoon, more than a 150 volunteers formed a human sandbag conveyor belt, swiftly passing on the bags along the dike on the southwest side of town, with icy water stretching to the horizon.

Gloria Nelson, who lives in the house closest to the dike on this side, had left the city with her daughter Tuesday for fear of being trapped in by floodwaters.

"When I left, I hugged my husband, I gave him a kiss, and I started crying," she said. "I told him, 'I wonder if I'll ever see my house again.' "

When she found out about the sandbagging push Sunday, she left a Moorhead motel room she had booked for 10 days and came back to help: "I just couldn't stand being away from home, not being able to help my community."

"There's a sense of determination here - people determined to beat the floodwater," said Scott Edward Haugen, who drove here from Fargo to help. "The resolve is amazing."

Johannsen said the community was taxed - intermittent power outages had plagued the town all day, and only a quarter of the sandbag barrier was ready by nightfall - but confident it could win.

"We survived the 1997 flood, and we'll survive this one," he said.

If you can volunteer in Hendrum, call (218) 861-6210.

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