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In Fargo, outpouring of kindness comforts flooding victims

A semitrailer truck drives north on Interstate 29, north of Grand Forks, N.D., through floodwaters and ice slabs on Monday. The Red River dropped Monday nearly 2 feet below its peak.

ERIC HYLDEN | Grand Forks Herald

A semitrailer truck drives north on Interstate 29, north of Grand Forks, N.D., through floodwaters and ice slabs on Monday. The Red River dropped Monday nearly 2 feet below its peak.

FARGO, N.D. — One family offered their home to anyone left homeless by flooding, even sharing their security entry code. When another couple lost their house, strangers showed up at their hotel with chicken dinners, brownies and quilts.

In the neighborly spirit synonymous with North Dakota, some people have given out their phone numbers on radio talk shows, offering shelter to any listeners in need. The generosity is so common that even as thousands of people are driven out of their homes by the overflowing Red River, most storm shelters are virtually empty.

"There is a different flavor up here — the type of hardworking ethic and the people helping each other up here that you don't see in a lot of cities," said Tom Hlady, who signed up through his church to take as many as nine people into his five-bedroom home.

On Monday, weary residents of Fargo were grateful to see the Red River retreating after its steady, threatening climb last week. But they faced a new threat: an approaching snowstorm expected to kick up wind-whipped waves that could threaten the sandbag levees.

The Red River dropped to 38.80 feet Monday, nearly 2 feet below its peak but nearly 21 feet above flood stage. City officials have said they would breathe easier when the river falls to 36 or 37 feet or lower.

Engineers are still worried that the levees could give way at any time, and they sent teams to vulnerable areas Monday to strengthen the system.

As the city waited for the snowstorm, residents said they did not consider the outpouring of kindness at all unusual.

Their 138-year-old city was ravaged by a fire more than a century ago and tested often over the years by the Red River. Fargo, they said, is a survivor, and one neighbor watching another's back is a way of life.

Hlady and his wife are leaving this week for a vacation in Phoenix. They planned to give their home's keypad security code to the church for anyone who needs a place to stay.

"People can go in, use our food, our beds and do whatever they need to do," Pam Hlady said.

Red Cross spokeswoman Courtney Johnson said emergency shelters are being used by a relatively small number of flood victims. That, she said, suggests that most families found other places to stay.

The spirit of outreach is all over news radio.

When sandbaggers were needed urgently in nearby Hendrum, Minn., broadcasters repeatedly gave driving directions to volunteers, and hundreds of people turned out to save the town.

Sarah Sebranek, a social studies teacher at Fargo North High School, has seen it at every turn.

Last Tuesday, when the sandbagging effort intensified, more than half of her students did not show up for classes. When her church offered free day care so parents could help fight the floodwaters, the Red Cross showed up unannounced with peanut butter and jelly, snack chips and pint-sized cartons of milk.

"We're not heroes," Sebranek said. "We just rise to the occasion."

Jim and Bonnie Myers saw the love firsthand on Friday, after their home just north of Moorhead burned to the ground because firefighters could not get past floodwaters.

The couple, both 73, fled to a Fargo hotel, where strangers showed up with roasted chicken, cole slaw, brownies and clothing. A woman even dropped off some homemade quilts and, for the diabetic Jim, a blood-sugar monitor.

"I find it very touching, very giving," said Jim, a retired trucker.

fast facts

Plains hit anew

The second major snowstorm to hit the northern Plains in a week dropped more than a foot of snow Monday, closing hundreds of miles of highway and shutting government offices and schools. The National Weather Service posted blizzard warnings across sections of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana. At least five deaths were blamed on the storm.

In Fargo, outpouring of kindness comforts flooding victims 03/30/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 8:15am]
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