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4 feet in 4 hours ... and more than 1,000 helpers

Greg Swanson, bottom, helps move sandbags Tuesday to raise a dike along the Red Lake River in Crookston, Minn. There was a voluntary evacuation of Crookston Tuesday. The Red Lake River is expected to crest at 26.4 feet there on Wednesday. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

CROOKSTON -- Mayor Dave Genereux woke up at 4 a.m. Tuesday to discover his home had lost power. That was the highlight of his day until the afternoon.

That's because the Red Lake River was rising dramatically -- almost four feet in four hours --and was within six inches of topping protection in some areas.

City officials earlier called for sandbagging volunteers to report to the hockey arena at 10 a.m. But they couldn't wait, sounding citywide sirens at 9:40 a.m. to signal the emergency.

"We felt a couple of additions were in danger, so we didn't want to wait," Genereux said. "When we blow the sirens, people turn on their radios to see what's happening. It was a serious situation where we needed immediate reaction."

They got it -- and more. More than 1,000 volunteers registered to help, a number buoyed when Minnesota-Crookston canceled the day's classes at 10:30 a.m. Hundreds of others didn't bother to do the registration paperwork.

"We've got an army out here," UMC employee Don Cavalier said.

How did the army improve Dave Genereux's day? Here's how: He sought citywide protec-tion to a 27-foot river level by the end of the day. He got 28 feet.

Since the latest forecast calls for a crest of 26.5 feet Thursday or Friday, Crookston has a cushion for the expected precipitation.

"We had quite a scurry there," Genereux said. "Having more than 1,000 volunteers is a high number for this community.

"When you run out of shovels, like we did, you know there are a lot of people out there working. The first day of sandbagging is always the best one."

That's especially true when it also is the last one.

Ice jam causes rise

The river's rapid rise resulted from an ice jam breaking upstream. Water had built up be-hind the jam, which acted as a dam, so it came in a hurry. The river reading went from 21.85 feet at 5 a.m. to 25.6 feet at 10 a.m.

The river kept rising until it reached 25.9 feet at 1 p.m., then slowly declined the rest of the day. Flows are expected to pick up again today until reaching the crest, with high water expected to remain for 2-3 days.

Several families heeded the city's call for a voluntary evacuation order for the areas with-out permanent flood protection. Becky Meier had 10 helpers getting the contents of her Pleasant Street rental home onto trailers. She and her two children will move into her par-ents' Crookston home until the danger subsides.

"With the way water runs these days, I can't take any chances," Meier said. "Without any insurance, it would be tough to replace all these things."

Meier attended college in Wahpeton in 1997, when she witnessed the flood-ravaged homes of friends. "I've seen what floodwater does to homes," she said.

"And I don't want to pack up and leave in the rain and snow. My friends and trailers are here, so I need to take the help when I can get it."

Student brigade leads way

More than 600 UMC students and more than 200 high school students registered as volun-teers, as did other local residents. The registration badge was an orange sticker stuck to a lapel.

"The fashion statement of the day is an orange sticker," said Tina Trostad, who worked the registration table at the hockey arena.

Having more than half of UMC's students show up was especially impressive to flood offi-cials.

"Ah, it's just a selfless act of goodness," UMC senior Eldo Fosness said jokingly. Then, more seriously, he added, "This shouldn't be that big of a deal. It should be expected."

There were so many volunteers that they literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand-bag line atop the Bridge Street dike. Gaps in the line were measured in inches.

UMC professor Sonia Spaeth was proud of the students she recognized as she stood on the front stoop of her Bridge Street home, where she has seen many floods in 34 years living there. Behind her was Aunt Polly's Slough, which is fed by the river in times of high water.

"Students need to get involved in service projects like this," Spaeth said. "They find it all exciting. After all my years here, I don't find it exciting at all."

But she noticed one difference from floods past. "This is the biggest turnout of sandbag-gers I've ever seen," she said.

They all helped turn around the mayor's day. It was a day that began with a power outage and an out-of-control river, but ended with his one-word assessment: "Super."