UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2009 / 0331- United Methodists Address Red River Threat

United Methodists Address Red River Threat

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom and Linda Green*

March 31, 2009—From sandbagging to evacuating, United Methodists have helped address the flood threat along the Red River Valley in the Dakotas and Minnesota.

"Water is everywhere," the Rev. Paul Baker, disaster response coordinator for the denomination's Dakotas Annual Conference, told United Methodist News Service on March 30. "The flooding started in the southern part of North Dakota, and the first city it hit was Wahpeton, where I live. We had one boil in the dike that had to be repaired. The city did wonders by holding the waters back." A boil is a leak or breach in a dike.

In Wahpeton, the Red River crested at 17.5 feet on March 24, a foot and a half above the permanent dikes. Water and ice from a nearby creek rushed into Wesley Acres, a United Methodist camp near Valley City, that day, causing damage. Lake Poinsett, a United Methodist camp in South Dakota, also sustained flood damage.

The Red River has been receding since hitting a record crest of 40.82 feet early on March 28. But as snow fell across the region, the National Weather Service maintained its flood warning March 30, noting that strong winds "may cause some wave action and turbulence Monday afternoon through Tuesday ... along with heavy snow that may hamper flood fighting efforts."

The Rev. Rich Zeck, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Fargo, was exhausted after spending the last 10 days bagging sand for the emergency dikes.

"We are tired, but the saying here is 'God is good and so is Advil,'" he said when reached by telephone. "Everyone is tired, but I am amazed that whenever a call is put out for volunteers, we have more than we need and we keep responding."

UMCOR Arrives

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood of the United Methodist Committee on Relief was expected in North Dakota on March 30 to meet with Bishop Deborah Kiesey and other officials of the Dakotas Conference but did not arrive because of the snowstorm. Kiesey had sent a March 26 statement to the denomination's Council of Bishops about the pending flooding and asked for prayers.

The conference is collecting cleaning (flood) buckets at Epworth United Methodist Church in Valley City, N.D., and McCabe United Methodist Church in Bismarck, N.D.

Fargo-Moorhead is now dealing with the brunt of the flooding. Fargo, on the North Dakota side of the Red River, with a population of 90,000, and Moorhead, on the Minnesota side, with 35,000 residents, are being affected by floodwaters.

Baker, who is pastor of Evergreen United Methodist Church in Wahpeton, said his congregation is providing housing for residents evacuated from a group home in West Fargo. "We've responded in numerous ways helping with evacuations," he added.

A reverse 911 system is being used in the Fargo-Moorhead area to notify neighborhoods of a leak or breach in the dike, according to Zeck. People in those neighborhoods are expected to walk to the area to provide assistance in sandbagging.

The stress has been constant. "One minute you are sandbagging, and the next you are helping evacuate people. Our families are gone, and we are here alone," he explained. "We are fighting hard to protect the wall. I have parishioners who have lost their homes."

Those left in the Fargo-Moorhead area were able to come to First church in Fargo on March 29 for worship. "Each pastor spoke about an aspect of the flood," Zeck reported. "It was nice to be able to do. It gave us a boost because we were all weary by then."

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America closed its offices in both Fargo and Moorhead as Lutheran Disaster Response, a ministry of the ELCA and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, monitored the situation. Flooding at Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo -- which occurred March 29 after a dike on the city's north side was breached - received national media attention.

'Response is Amazing'

"The United Methodist Church's response is amazing," Baker said. "The UMC, in conjunction with Lutheran Disaster Response and other volunteer agencies, set up a staging area to help with evacuations of physically challenged people and those needing assistance. We had 100 people go through on that first day."

Church members continue to pitch in as needed, according to Baker. "I cannot say enough about the response of The United Methodist Church. We have had an amazing amount of volunteers to step up in every area -from sandbagging to volunteering to welcoming evacuees into their homes."

Both Zeck and Baker stressed that the area is not ready for outside cleanup and work teams to arrive. "We are not ready for flood buckets," Zeck said. "We are fighting a wall of water. We are still at the flood stage, and we have a major snowstorm coming."

UMCOR is coordinating donations to assist communities affected by the Red River flooding. Drop checks in church offering plates or mail them directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Write Advance #901670 Domestic Disaster Response, Red River Floods, on the memo line. Credit-card donations can be made by calling (800) 554-8583 or online. Online Giving

United Methodists also can help with flood relief efforts by donating cleaning (flood) buckets. More information can be found at

*Bloom, based in New York, and Green, based in Nashville, are news writers for United Methodist News Service.