FARGO, N.D., March 27, 2009 - The human sandbag chain in north Fargo on March 26 was evenly represented by civilian and military volunteers.
North Dakota National Guard Airmen and Soldiers, in their traditional camouflaged uniforms, slugged thousands of 20-pound sacks of sand alongside an Army of Fargo residents and out-of-towners resolved to save the El Zagel Shrine and Masonic Temple from floodwater from the rising Red River.
It's a scene that's been played and replayed since the Guard sent in its first personnel more than a week ago to help fortify the city's last lines of defense against a catastrophic flood.
Sgt. 1st Class Dan L. Olson, a Guard volunteer from the 957th Multi-role Bridge Company in Bismarck, said the civilian workforce was critical to the success of the mission.
"The volunteers are really kicking butt; as long as we keep getting them out here helping us, we'll be fine," Olson said.
Olson said that a crew of about 50 citizen-Soldiers and citizen-Airmen worked well into the night on March 25, before shutting down when it got too dark. Their mission was to raise an existing two-foot-high sandbag levee another two feet after new projections from the National Weather Service said the Red River would likely crest higher than previously anticipated.
Jim Savaloja, Leeds, N.D., a former Grand Master of the Masons of North Dakota and a civilian volunteer flood fighter, said the community is just as appreciative of the efforts of the Guard.
"The Guard has just been fantastic through all of this," Savaloja said. "Most days out here it's about half and half, Guard personnel to civilians, and they do a great job working together side-by-side. New friendships are being made all the time out on that sandbagging line."
Savaloja said the sandbag dike being installed between the El Zagel and the Red River may not be significant in size at only about 500 yards long, but it is critical piece of the city's flood protection system. He said a breach at that location not only would wipe out El Zagel and the Masonic Temple, but it also would send a torrent of water down 14th Avenue North, a down-sloping grade toward several north Fargo neighborhoods.
Master Sgt. Robert Ramsett, who lives south of Horace, N.D., and is a member of the 119th Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard, was one of the military personnel at the El Zagel site. He's become a veteran of weather and flood fights in recent years, having volunteered for recovery missions after ice storms in North Dakota, the Red River Valley flood of 1997, and Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast.
"I hope I don't have to be doing something again too soon," Ramsett said, with a smile. "At least not for another three years."
All of the volunteers, both military and civilian, have been treated to hot coffee and gourmet burgers, with all of the fixings, courtesy of the folks at the El Zagel.
"We're feeling a bit guilty about it all, watching the volunteers do all that work for us," said Terry Dailey, who helps out at El Zagel. "We're just happy to be able to do our part and give back."
Spc. Ryan M. Coghlan, Valley City, N.D., a member of the 141st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade in Bismarck, said he jumped at the chance to come to Fargo and help the community once he got the call to volunteer.
"It feels pretty good working with the people getting out there and mixing it up with everyone working together," Coghlan said. "I signed up to do a lot of different stuff and this is one of them."