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UND students head to Fargo to help

John Varriano, a rural Fargo resident with strong ties to UND, was overjoyed to see UND students including (from left) Adam Pachl, Peter Bryce and Alex Yakymi show up to sandbag at his home Monday. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

FARGO -- John Varriano was "overjoyed" when he saw 30 young and able bodies walking toward his flood-threatened rural home.

As they came closer, he spotted a wealth of black and green clothing bearing Fighting Sioux logos. "That is a bonus," he said.

"We're UND people here."

His wife, Cindy, grew up in Grand Forks. A son and daughter attended UND. And he's a Sioux hockey season ticketholder.

His bond grew tighter when 55 UND students volunteered at his housing development south of Fargo at mid-afternoon. Another 150 students left campus at 5 p.m. Monday to help with flood-fighting efforts in and around this under-siege city.

"This doesn't surprise me at all," Varriano said. "That's what people do around here."

He already had canceled plans to follow the Sioux in this weekend's hockey regional. "Too much going on here," he said in purposeful understatement.

The goings-on included the rising Red River out his backyard. An even bigger threat was the Wild Rice River, which floods overland toward his front door and forces the Varrianos to build a ring dike.

He and his neighbors were off to a modest start on the dike when the green-and-white UND bus rolled into the small development of big homes. The reinforcements allowed sandbag lines rather than the fill-and-carry method.

Sophomore Kristine DeVaal of Grand Forks said payback time was her motivation for the six-hour commitment.

"I was in second grade during the 1997 flood, so I was too young to help out," she said. "I just feel it's the right thing to do. It never hurts to have an extra hand."

The increasingly difficult effort, as the crest forecast continues to rise, had many extra hands Monday as North Dakota State, Minnesota State Moorhead and Concordia College of Moorhead called off classes and urged their students to help. UND President Robert Kelley

didn't cancel classes, but gave his blessing and asked professors to excuse students for missing class.

The trip was the idea of outgoing Student Senate Vice President Mike Crenshaw. After watching the Sunday night news, "I realized we needed to do something about it," he said.

Working with Student Senate President Tyrone Grandstrand, they sent a campuswide e-mail at 10:30 a.m. Monday. That left short notice about the 1 p.m. departure, but students such as DeVaal and sophomore Brennan Hill jumped at the chance.

"We were planning on coming on our own, so we thought we'd take advantage of the free ride," Hill said. "We wanted to help out our neighbors to the south so hopefully they'll return the favor when the water comes up to Grand Forks."

Three more student sandbagging buses will leave UND today. DeVaal said she'll be on one of them.

"I'm ready to get messy," she said.

That's inevitable because it's a dirty job. The combination of rain, mud, ice, snow drifts and heavy equipment creating deep ruts has made sandbagging even nastier than usual. Monday's work throughout the southern end of the valley was often intense because of the difficult conditions and the dire consequences of failure.

But Varriano and his fellow "UND people" still found time to trade laughs as the sandbags reached the desired 3-foot height.

"I should run my Sioux flag up my flagpole," Varriano said. "But I don't know where it is and I'm too busy to put it up even if I could find it."