The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Water, water everywhere

I was looking at computer news last night, and there was the big article I'd been dreading but knew was coming: It looks like another bad flood year for the northern plains.

We left Valley City, North Dakota, in July of 2009, after Martin retired from teaching at the university there. We moved to Wellington, Utah, which is pretty much in the desert. We bought a little house that had a basement, but one which showed no signs of water damage. We'd been living in a lovely town in Nodak that turned into Flood Trauma Central, after a long, long snowy winter. It was a winter/spring where no one had seen Sheyenne River flood predictions that high since the 1880s, and no one was alive who remembered it. We didn't want to go through that again.

The Sheyenne River, normally beautiful and peaceful, winds through Valley City, turning it into what is known as "The City of Bridges." That spring of 2009 it was a monster. We had a smart and savvy mayor, Mary Lee Nielson, who started hauling dirt early. For a solid month, from early morning to late at night, big trucks rumbled through town, building makeshift dikes along the river. Almost everyone lives near the river in Valley City, and we were no exception.

Valley City State University is right on the river. Dikes went up, as well as dikes inside of dikes. The same thing was going on, on a larger scale, in Fargo, and in other towns. Most of the rivers in the area dump into the Red River of the North, which flows through Fargo and north into Canada. The rivers all rise at different times, and do their damage. Fargo went first, and we followed, as did Jamestown to the east of us, on the James River.

Soon all the bridges in Valley City were blocked off with dirt, except one, so people could still get in and - more important - out, if the need came. It used to be such a treat to drop down off the gently rolling prairie and into our little valley. Now our little valley was filling up with sandbags, dirt dikes, and that ever-growing Sheyenne River.

The university was finally shut down about a month before graduation, because it was just too dangerous to expose students living along the river to potential hazard. VCSU is the first university in the nation to go entirely wired and laptop, so kids were able to finish their classes online at a distance. It was my husband's last semester of teaching, and his final play of his career was cancelled two days before it opened, because the university closed. Sigh.

The public school system closed, too, mainly because as the water kept rising, the sewer collapsed. Mary Lee told everyone to evacuate, and many of us did. Our grandson, Noah, was living with us that year and going to junior high. We called friends in Fargo (their flood was receding) and asked if we could refugee to their house. They said sure, so we did. Gov. John Hoeven send out a statewide APB for us and towns like ours that were in trouble to send kids to school anywhere in the state. The state would pick up the book and lunch tab. Noah - um, what an appropriate name for the time - went to school in neighboring Maple Valley.

After about a week of this, we returned home. Our mayor had arranged for Porta Potties to be hauled into Valley City. The deal was, we could use all the water we wanted, but none of it could go down those drains. Hence, the portable johns. We met our neighbors in new and different ways for a few weeks, until an over-the-street pipe was jury-rigged to take sewage. In our house, we plugged the bathtub and took extremely brief showers, where the water fell into a bucket, which we dumped outside the front door. The rest of the water was drained by a shop vac and then dumped outside.

So it went for awhile. People in the northern plans are highly resourceful, and we managed. It makes my heart ache to think they're going to have to go through all that again. Valley City was mostly spared that year, and again in 2010. I say mostly, because many outlying homes along the river went under. I know they are worrying about this spring, which threatens to be as bad as 2009, if not worse. And I worry, too, because I love Valley City and the wonderful folks who live there.

Water is a funny thing - we need it, we like it, but it can turn on us. Right about when we think we can master it, water has a way of reminding us that we aren't in charge and never will be.

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