United Methodist Mayor Fights Dakota Floods

April 17, 2009

A UMNS Report

By Linda Bloom*

April 15, 2009

A member of United Methodist Women who also is the mayor of her city is fighting rising floodwaters in North Dakota.

On April 14, Mary Lee Nielson asked residents of Valley City, about 60 miles west of Fargo, to voluntarily evacuate the downtown business district and surrounding area by 6 p.m. the next day. The population of Valley City is approximately 6,500 to 7,000.

The Rev. Debra Ball-Kilbourne, who is helping coordinate disaster relief for the United Methodist Dakotas Annual Conference, said the order came on the 22nd day of sandbagging efforts on the dikes that ring the city.

"Valley City is one of the areas we're most concerned about right now," she told United Methodist News Service. "It has 11 bridges. All but one are under water right now."


Ball-Kilbourne said that Nielson, a lifelong Valley City resident, had never led in disaster response before but has made "all the right moves" during the flood crisis.

Authorities decided to request the evacuation upon consultation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Weather Service and U.S. Geological Survey, according to the Valley City Times-Record. Three breaches in the flood dikes there occurred in the 48-hour period before the decision was made.

At issue is a combination of rain and snowmelt into the dam and Sheyenne River, which empties into the Red River, requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release more water than expected from the reservoir.

Nielson told the Times-Record that while the dikes are at 24 feet, "river water elevations have never before exceeded 20 feet," thus sparking the evacuation. The National Guard is assisting with flood-related work and security.

Continuous flood threats

Residents of North and South Dakota and Minnesota have been coping with flood threats since mid-March, and the Red River was expected to crest a second time at 37 feet on April 17. In an April 13 YouTube video message, United Methodist Bishop Deborah Kiesey acknowledged that the threat was not over.

"As some communities and homes are now just mucking out from the flooding, others are watching and praying for the dikes to hold, and still others are waiting for the snow to melt and worrying about the effects of overland flooding," she said.

Kiesey cited Red Cross statistics showing that, so far, 906 homes have been damaged in eastern and central North Dakota, 664 homes have been affected and 187 homes have sustained major damage.

Ball-Kilbourne explained that an ancient lakebed has had an impact on flooding across North Dakota. West of Valley City in Jamestown, where she lives, two units of the Army Corps of Engineers, one from Omaha, Neb., and one from Minneapolis, are monitoring the two major reservoirs. The engineers, she said, have to let water out quickly as the snowpack melts. "In order to do that, it pretty much floods towns down below us."

These small towns, such as Lisbon, don't have the infrastructure to deal with the situation and turn to the churches for help, she pointed out.

Ball-Kilbourne, a district superintendent, was recently appointed by Kiesey to a one-year term as the bishop's assistant for disaster response. The Rev. Paul Baker continues as the conference's disaster response coordinator.

UMCOR surveys damage

The denomination also will provide assistance. The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, who oversees domestic disaster relief for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, was in the Dakotas April 6-9 to survey the damage. A blizzard had prevented his arrival the week before. Larry Powell, an UMCOR consultant, also spent a week in the area. Both the Dakotas and Minnesota conferences have received initial grants from UMCOR.


"I had an opportunity to fly up the Red River and see where the flooding is, as well as go out into some of the rural areas that were flooded," Hazelwood said. "The river was six miles wide in some areas."

About 98 percent of the affected area is farmland, according to Hazelwood, who noted that flooding had been particularly traumatic for farmers whose cattle either drowned or were killed by chunks of ice.

He predicted that the full extent of the damage will not be known until June, but said UMCOR would provide some funding for the recovery effort. "Many of these folks who got flooded do not have insurance," he added.

North Dakota members of Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters, "which have always worked well together," have participated in telephone conference calls every other day to discuss the flood situation, according to Ball-Kilbourne. Relief and recovery needs will include case management, cleanup and rebuilding.

Spiritual and emotional care will be part of the recovery for those who have fought the flooding over a long period. "It is difficult to do this for days on end," she said.

VOAD partnership

Although United Methodists will organize and register their own volunteer teams, Lutheran Disaster Response will assess affected communities and take the lead in coordination of cleanup and rebuilding, she said, and United Methodists will take the lead on case management. "We're a pretty small state, so each of the VOAD partners do what they've normally done," she added.

While it is too early for cleanup in the Fargo-Moorhead area, she expected that towns like Linton and Beulah may be ready as soon as the next week or two. In-state volunteers should complete the forms on the Dakotas Conference Web site at http://www.dakotasumc.nonprofitoffice.com/, while out-of-state volunteers should contact Lorna Jost, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission coordinator for the North Central Jurisdiction, at  605.692.3390  or send an e-mail to umvim-ncj@brookings.net.

"We need teams and well need funds," Ball-Kilbourne said about help from church members. "We need their prayers."

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 online or by calling 800.554.8583.

United Methodists also can help with flood relief efforts by donating flood buckets. More information is at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/getconnected/supplies/flood-bucket/.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.