Throughout the night, a family stands firm

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2009 - 8:20 AM

One family battles the Red and wondesr how long it can hold out.

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On Hackberry Drrive in south Fargo along the Red River, Larry Strande and his son Tom Miller of Mound, Minnesota check on the sump pumps that are keeping the home dry. Strande's home is on the outside of the secondary dike in the neighborhood.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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FARGO

Steam rose on the placid surface of the Red River early Saturday morning. Tree branches covered in ice crystals glistened in the light. Two geese floated downstream.

But the picturesque waterway that has brought Larry Strande nearly 20 years of serenity is now an unrelenting enemy.

For nearly a week, he has been battling the Red's quiet aggression: Building a sandbag dike in his backyard. Moving most of his belongings to the second story of his house on Hackberry Drive. Waking himself up in the middle of the night to check his fortress.

So far, the river has managed to seep only into his basement. "We're going to try and keep fighting," Strande said with a grimace.

It's a barrier the city doesn't trust: In front of his house, workers have built an 8-foot "contingency dike" of sand and clay in case the sandbags fail, leaving Strande and about 45 of his waterfront neighbors sandwiched between the two. Officials urged them to evacuate on Friday. If one piece of the sandbag dike leaks too much or fails, the residents know, all of their houses could go under. But many have chosen to stay and fight.

It was nearly 1 a.m. Saturday when a bleary-eyed Strande, 63, made one last check of the dike before switching to night-shift mode. He had huddled with his enlisted soldiers: son-in-law Tom Miller of Mound and Strande's girlfriend's son, Taylor Jackson, who at 19 contributes night-owl energy.

Together, the three have been monitoring the puddles and tiny streams that constantly form in the back yard -- the river's tentacles slithering through the sandbags, reaching for the basement windows.

Jackson would be the night's shift leader, bundling up every 40 minutes or so to check on the pumps charged with returning the seeping water back into the bloated Red.

"There's so much to know ... Every pump has little peculiarities to it," Strande said. "And everything is icing up."

Miller flopped onto a couch for the night. He set his cell phone alarm to a cheery synthesized tune to wake him for periodic checks, too. Strande headed upstairs to sleep amid his stacked-up possessions: Family holiday decorations. A collection of crystal glasses. Couches and stereo equipment from the basement.

Jackson trudged outside, into the single-digit cold, and shined his flashlight on each half-sunken pump. He shook dead leaves and debris from their screens. He knocked ice off the ends of hoses. Right then, everything was humming.

The sump pumps stop

It was still dark when Strande woke up, jittery, at 5 a.m. He peeked outside and saw water near his basement windows. Jackson was heading toward the house. Uh oh, Strande thought as he pulled on his clothes, a knit Minnesota Vikings hat covering his ears.

Several of his sump pumps had suddenly stopped. Was it the electricity? He checked the circuit breaker in the basement, and sure enough, it had tripped. He hit the reset switch.

But a larger lake pump remained stubbornly shut down. Strande remembered an offer that some men watching a neighbor's house had made earlier.

If you run into something you can't handle, just come get us.

He went to enlist them. They were awake, taking turns on their own pumping vigil. Strande's lake pump was frozen, they thought, and suggested that he fight the cold water with warm water. One bucketful carefully poured, and the pump was humming again. Disaster averted.

"It's stressful," he said. "The water is going to the house. You don't have time."

Several '100-year floods'

Strande and most of his neighbors had their homes built in the early 1990s under requirements to withstand a 100-year flood, he said.

That was no problem. Even in 1997, when much of the Red River Valley was devastated, Strande's next-door neighbor didn't need to sandbag. Strande, whose yard is slightly lower, had short sandbag walls erected in 2001 and 2006, but those turned out to be unnecessary.

This year's flood is like nothing they've ever seen. If not for their wall this time, Strande's basement would be full. The river's edge, normally more than 100 yards away, now looks to be within about 20 yards of his home.

Wide-eyed and slumped in a soft chair, Strande looked out a big window toward the river and said: "When you sit here, it almost looks like the river is higher than you are."

Strande estimates the sandbag dike built along their neighborhood with volunteer help last week is about 6 feet tall in most spots, with about 10,000 sandbags in his yard alone. Saturday, the water's surface was hitting about two-thirds of the way up.

An investment planner who'd always dreamed of living along the river, Strande never dreamed a "100-year flood" would threaten so often.

It's OK ... for now

Later Saturday, as small chunks of ice floated downstream, Strande lit a cigar.

"Helps me think," he explained.

He called his girlfriend, asking her to bring in more supplies: Diabetes medicine, frozen pizza, flashlight batteries.

City workers in bright green vests walked by and asked if Strande needed gas for his pump generator. The city was arranging to bring some in. Strande's face brightened. Another thing the city was doing right.

"I'm sure glad they got the gas situation resolved," he said, looking over the 8-foot dike separating him from the rest of the city. "How do you get 5-gallon gas cans over that?"

His battle against the Red is possible because city utilities are still working, he said. The washing machine runs frequently, its warm, clean water erasing cold river muck from dirty socks and gloves. A Shop-Vac is sucking water from the basement carpet.

Strande wonders how he'll keep up the war. The river is expected to remain near its peak crest for several days, authorities said. And with warmer weather coming, Strande worries about the ground thawing and the dike continuing to hold.

But for the moment, things seemed OK.

"We're ahead!" his son-in-law joked after checking the pumps. "The river. I heard it yell 'Mercy!' just a second ago."

But within an hour, Miller found another stalled pump. Water crept up the lawn.

Fingers tingling from the cold, he tried replacing it with a warm pump and checked the electricity.

Frustrated, he knocked the pump against the frozen ground. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

It hummed to life again.

Strande 1, Red River 0.

For now.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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