'Hold My Heart'
It is Oct. 23 and I'm sitting in my dorm room at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan. Almost exactly four months ago, on June 22, I was sitting at a stoplight in my hometown of Minot, listening to the sound of sirens ringing through the air. These sirens warned residents of the Mouse River Valley to evacuate and signaled the beginning of the worst flooding in Minot's history. That night, I went home and wrote "A Quiet Disaster" (reprinted below), my attempt at organizing my thoughts into words. As I read it today, all of the memories come rushing back. Little did I know then what the next months would bring.
For nearly a week straight, we had the television on all day. The images were almost too incredible to believe. The fairgrounds, the baseball fields, the schools, the churches, and the homes so many homes. Everything sitting in water. In my essay, I wrote of people who would be out of their homes for weeks. However, those weeks would eventually turn into months. The city of Minot was heartbroken.
The week that people were allowed back into the flood zone, I was in Minnesota with friends. I sat in our motel room and looked at picture after picture of houses still filled with the putrid brown floodwater. The night that I got back to Minot, my parents took me to our church. From the outside, the building looked the same as when I left except for the line of grunge that marked how high the water had reached. It was nearly to the door handles. The curb was lined with everything from books to tables to toys from the nursery, everything deemed irreconcilable.
I stepped inside, my parents behind me, and immediately was hit with a smell that I will never forget. I could hardly recognize what I was seeing not pews or pianos or hymnals. Instead, the carpet was covered with a layer of slime and littered with pieces of the walls. This was my beautiful church. The enormity of what had happened hit me hard and I broke down.
Flood cleanup is hands-down the hardest thing I've ever done. The first day was hot and humid (by North Dakota standards) and overcast. I was dressed in a pair of ratty jeans and an old T-shirt, ready for a long day. All of us who were working that day donned masks as protection against the mold that had grown up the walls. I was put to work with a crowbar, but it wasn't just the physical labor that made it so hard.
The first time that the crowbar smashed through the wet sheetrock, I almost had to stop. I stared at the hole I had made and felt like crying again. There was something deeply painful about purposefully destroying the walls of my church. In my mind I knew that the building itself was worthless that the value of the church was its people but my heart was still struggling.
We carried out countless loads of debris and dumped them into my dad's grain truck to be hauled away. I was sweaty and covered with dirt and bits of damp sheetrock and insulation. The mask was scratchy and made it hard to breathe. I finally stepped outside and pulled it off so I could take in some fresh air. My grandpa's pickup bed was loaded with a few shelves that had been untouched by the water. They were a few of the only things that had been saved. As I stood there, smelling the all-too-familiar scent of mildew and mold wafting out of the church, it suddenly began to sprinkle. Then it began to pour.
We attempted to cover the shelves but ran out of blankets. I stepped back inside and just watched as the broken, crumbling pews sitting on the curb once again soaked up water. And I wondered, why did God let this happen?
Suddenly the words of a song from Tenth Avenue North popped into my head.
"One tear in the driving rain, one voice in a sea of pain,
Could the maker of the stars hear the sound of my breaking heart?
One life, that's all I am. Right now I can barely stand.
If you're everything You say You are
Would You come close and hold my heart?"
I miss Minot. I feel disconnected and sometimes I forget for days at a time about the ongoing struggle to restore what was lost. When I return home in December for Christmas break, the first thing I want to do, after hugging my family, is go to my church. I want to walk through the bare rooms and be able to know that things are getting better.
God has a plan. I don't understand why He allowed my church to flood. I don't understand why He allowed thousands of people to lose their homes. I don't understand why He allowed so much pain and devastation in my city. I don't understand why He couldn't have just held back the water. All I really know for sure is that He has a plan.
And that's all I need.
A quiet disaster
Few disasters happen quite like this one. Sitting on the deck of our pastor's house, it was warm and sunny. Not too windy, not too cold, and not a drop of rain. It almost felt completely normal.
In reality, it was anything but. The streets were strangely quiet, with only the occasional vehicle passing by. Not odd unless you observed the usual trailer following behind and stacked high with furniture and boxes of every shape and size. No one was mowing their lawn, watching TV or barbecuing on this perfect summer day. Inside the house, the basement was stripped bare of nearly everything and the guys were working on hauling up the furnace, the last order of business before locking the doors and leaving.
The day before had been a long one. It had started with hearing, again, the Olsons on KXMC saying the words everyone has dreaded for weeks. Minot was losing the flood fight. The dikes were going to fail. Water would flow into the streets and houses would be lost. Mayor Curt Zimbelman reluctantly admitted defeat, weary sadness etched across his face. We packed up as many boxes and Rubbermaid containers as we could fit into our van and pickup and headed for the evacuation zones.
Here, there was an atmosphere of quiet resignation. It was as if time had slowed down a little. People seemed to realize that there was nothing to do but simply pack up and leave, regardless of whatever emotions they were feeling. I thought of friends of mine who were leaving it hurt to think there was no way out of this, no way to stop the water from coming. No way to help but to pray.
We started moving our entire church basement up to the main level at about 9:30 in the morning and wrapped up at 4 that afternoon. The sheer amount of stuff that had to be moved seemed a little overwhelming at times and after endless trips up and down the stairs, I felt like I'd had my workout for the week. Boxes of things I had never even seen before were carried upstairs and stacked on pews and tables and in side rooms. My dad and I struggled to haul up two file cabinets without gouging chunks out of the walls. (By the way: three stoves plus two refrigerators plus one piano equals the need for about six men. I stayed out of the way.) As my dad put it, we moved "everything that wasn't nailed down, and a lot that was."
By the time the job was finished, the bare walls of every room in the basement stared back at me as the first tangible evidence that this flood was really happening. Because my own house is about 20 miles away from the flood plain in Minot, it would have been easy enough to turn off the TV and forget about everything. After all, our fields are soggy enough and it's a frustrating year from the farming aspect as well. The stress in our house has been like a constant, unspoken presence.
But people in Minot were going to be losing their very homes. Thousands of people wouldn't even be able to sleep in their own beds for weeks. Our church, one that I had grown up in and spent countless hours in, could very well have its basement filled with water within a week. This was reality a reality that couldn't be escaped by simply switching off the news and thinking of something else.
Back to that beautiful, sunny day. The day that, to an outsider, would have maybe even seemed idyllic. The residents of the Minot evacuation zones were doing just what they were told to do. They were leaving quickly but calmly. No panic, no mass hysteria. As we drove our pickup behind our pastor's truck and trailer in search of a much-needed lunch, I almost had to remind myself, we're waiting for a disaster. Waiting for sirens to sound, warning the last of the evacuees to finish up their packing and leave their homes behind.
The names we have all become so familiar with seem so innocent. The Lake Darling dam. The Mouse River. Nothing threatening about that, right? But the river was more of a swelling giant, barely able to continue flowing underneath the bridge on 16th Street. Driving south, we were literally surrounded by trucks, trailers and moving vans with every conceivable type of furniture being hauled away from the valley.
One of the first visible consequences of too much snow and rain, the potholes dotted the roads, daring my dad not to drop violently into them as we drove. When we reached the intersection of 16th Avenue and Broadway at 12:57 and stopped at the light, a loud howl suddenly interrupted the day. It seemed that nearly every car at the intersection instantly had the windows down as an entire city paused to listen to the eerie moan of the sirens.
As we headed out of town a few hours later, we drove by the primary levee one more time. The water seemed to be clinging to the edges of the dike like a kid who was scared to go down a waterslide, potentially just minutes from spilling over. In one spot, a small trickle of water had just begun making its way over the edge and down the other side, running crookedly over the clay and into the street. The beginning flow of a disaster.
We all know how tough our city is. No one doubts the strength of our citizens the stamina and resolve. Neither do they doubt the sincerity the compassion and veracity. Our city has taken a hard hit this spring. The fight has been long and hard and despite all our efforts, houses and property will be lost. But our heart? The heart of the city is intact. No amount of water, not 22,000 cfs or 1,563 feet, can destroy the spirit of Minot.
The disaster began rising to a climax on this calm summer day. And once the water has dissipated and the cleanup begins, the Magic City will once again band together as a community of neighbors and friends to restore our home.