As River Rose, Volunteerism Rose With It

Volunteers erect dikes from sandbags to hold back the rising waters of the Red River, in Fargo, N.D.
By CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds

The overnight leakage has indeed been patched up, and the river continues to slowly recede. But sandbag production here has resumed as a precaution, because in Fargo you can not be too safe

All week long they had watched it rise, higher and higher than anyone had ever seen.

The Red River is an oddity, running north - not south - toward Canada, across terrain as flat as a tabletop. Always flood-prone, it was a sure bet to overflow this year from unusually heavy rain and snow.

Chris Leveau measures the river for the U.S. Geological Survey.

"I've never seen water this high in Fargo," he said. "It's unprecedented."

And unprecedented was the effort to beat it.

In Fargo, a city of 90,000, 80,000 volunteers showed up - men, women, children. Everyone who could help appeared in defense of the city.

"You've got to try and stay positive," said one volunteer.

It was a development President Obama noted in his weekly address:

"In the Fargodome, thousands of people gathered not to watch a football game or a rodeo, but to fill sandbags. Volunteers filled 2.5 million of them in just five days, working against the clock, day and night, with tired arms and aching backs. Others braved freezing temperatures, gusting winds, and falling snow to build levees along the river's banks to help protect against waters that have exceeded record levels."
But as the week wore on, the river kept rising ...

Predicted crests of 37 to 38 feet were replaced by estimates of 40 all the way up to an alarming 43 feet, equal to the height of Fargo's levees and dikes.

The river inundated the home where Peter Frei lived.

"As the water came up from the basement, you could feel all the memories go right up to the ceiling," he said.

His was one of nearly a hundred Coast Guard rescue missions this past week.

In nearby Moorhead, Minnesota, 2,600 houses were evacuated. In Fargo, nursing homes were emptied, patients were moved from hospitals, and a certain fateful tone intruded.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said, "If we go down, we're gonna go down swinging."

Walaker and other leaders spoke daily at open meetings that provided the public invaluable information, as unvarnished as the data from National Weather Service analyst Greg Gust:

"We're here to make sure you guys are getting it direct from the horse's mouth which is the end we want it coming out from," he said to laughter.

While the word spread Saturday that the river was at last cresting, no one was ready to celebrate.

Ilene Lee spoke with us, the river a few steps from her door: "I'm feeling fairly confident. Cautiously optimistic, which, for a Norwegian is practically delirious!"

While frigid weather has helped freeze the river in place, there is still abundant snow cover here. An abrupt thaw could melt it into the river ...and a terrifying week could be repeated.

But a statement was made here that may be useful beyond the Great Plains.

After weeks of national stories about cheats and schemers, the people of faraway Fargo showed what a sense of community really means ... and the rewards that sacrificing for a cause greater than oneself may bring.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.