A Hurricane in Texas Reminds Us of a Flood in Minnesota

We are Norwegian, German, stubborn and fighters. This is our place, and we’ll stay here.

Steve Carbno, disaster coordinator for the Salvation Army, Fargo, ND

Hurricane Harvey, that still ravages Texas, brought back many memories from our experiences with a record flood in 2009. I am sorry for the people affected by this hurricane: their lives with be changed forever and the road ahead will be difficult and exhausting.

Our story:

The fall of 2008 brought record rainfall to Fargo, ND/Moorhead, MN–across the Red River from one another. December had more snow than any month in history. Worried about spring floods, I added more flood insurance. Throughout the winter, I watched the weather daily: Would it snow, might it melt some, what were the flood predictions? I went on a 3-week photo trip out West at the end of January, 2009. I checked the weather back home every day.

As March began, the National Weather Service predicted a flood crest in the mid to high 30-foot range. Dennis Walacker — who was the mayor of Fargo, North Dakota, and had been public works director in 1997, and who was credited with saving Fargo from the flood that year — thought the crest would be lower. Our home would be safe to almost 39 feet.

The flood came early, fast, and big.

We began to sandbag on March 20, 2009. Melanie was born and raised in this region, and her mother and eight of her brothers and sisters lived in the area. They had children and some of their children had children. They turned out in force to help. Many came back day after day. Melanie’s mom, sisters, friends, and co-workers took over the kitchen. Workers were well fed.

Melanie was a good friend to many, and those friends turned out en masse. Her professional colleagues were tremendous in their help and concern. We had members of the girls’ volleyball team from North Dakota State University and a high school wrestling team help out. Helpers included bankers, coaches, teachers, builders, farmers, attorneys, scientists, garbage men, federal agents, retired folks, and the students. Without the students — from grade school through college — Fargo/Moorhead would have been lost to the flood.

Three days later, we had filled approximately 20,000 bags with 35 pounds of sand each. As many as 150 people worked at once. It was an amazing example of self-organization — the chaos of people coming together for a common purpose came to order and did so quickly. People did what they could, leaders emerged and leadership shifted naturally, creativity took over, and rules took a back seat. Skid steers tore around our yard carrying filled sand bags. It broke Melanie’s heart to see her yard and landscaping torn up, but survival becomes the sole priority in a crisis. We worked in rain, snow, and mud. People cared, and fought to protect their property and that of their friends and neighbors. Laughter filled the air, and we felt a powerful sense of purpose and community. I’ve never been part of such an expenditure of energy before; people working together was a magnificent sight to see.

Each day the predicted crest got larger. Over a few weeks, it went from 34 feet to 42-43 feet. During the days we sandbagged, the crest prediction rose a foot or more each day. Every time we thought we were finished, we had to dig a little deeper within ourselves and pile the bags higher. We were exhausted, but our core group of men and women would not stop. We thought we were done when our dike protected our home to 40 feet. Overnight it snowed 7 inches. The flood and snow scenes were surreal. Climbing over the plastic-covered dike was a slippery venture.

Later that day, the National Weather Service — a constant source of frustration — raised the crest prediction by another foot. We went to work yet again. The heartiest among us pulled a boat through the strong current and freezing slush to the dike on the road that led to our home. They then walked through snowdrifts to their pick-up trucks a couple of blocks away. They went in search of filled sandbags, loaded their trucks, and returned. They loaded the sandbags onto sleds, pulled them through the snow and over the dike, and loaded them into the boat, which they pulled through the slush and fleeing voles to the house where they stacked them onto the dike. This work went on from late afternoon until 1:30 a.m. We again thought we were OK.

Our home surrounded by water.

The next afternoon, they raised the crest prediction again — this time, to 42-43 feet. We were surrounded by water. We went to work again in the late afternoon and followed the same process as the day before. We worked deep into the evening. Suddenly we had sewer backup in our basement. The public works department had shut down the lift station without telling us. Melanie slammed the state-of-the art sewer shut-off down and the backup stopped, but the damage was done. From now on, the toilet would be a bucket outside.

Then the authorities ordered an evacuation of all residents in a huge part of the city. A 43-foot flood would devastate the community. We didn’t know then that they had no authority to “order” an evacuation. They meant well, but they scared us, and we decided to evacuate.

At about 9:00 p.m., it was time to go. Melanie locked the door and climbed over the sandbags. She was the last person out of the house and into the boat. As we left our neighborhood, a plow closed the road behind us.

The next morning, two family members boated to the house. Our dike had held. No water had gotten under the dike, over it, around it, or through it. When they took the dike down many weeks later, the Army Corps of Engineers supervisor said it was one of the best-built dikes he had ever seen.

But a back-up sump pump had failed, and we had 9 to 12 inches of water in our finished basement, along with the sewer backup. We had moved many things of value to the second floor, but there was still a massive amount of accumulated stuff floating around the basement.

The harm was done. A costly finished basement was ruined, and many possessions were contaminated. Our furnace, water heater, and freezer were destroyed. The house smelled of sewage. Carpets on the main floor and top floor were caked with mud from the frantic efforts of a dozen or more volunteers to move our possessions to the top floor. Our yard and landscaping were ruined by the dike-building process. Our road was torn up by sand trucks. Two neighbors lost their homes. Others had water damage worse than us.

Family members spent several nights in the house and watched the dike and pumps. Melanie and I stayed with Melanie’s mother for a week. Our dogs were farmed out to relatives. We adapted by the minute.

A few days after evacuating, we returned home. We parked a few blocks away. We used the sled and walked through snow, water, and mud in waders and got to the dike. We climbed over it and got some necessities and put them into garbage bags. We carried them over the slippery dike and onto the sled and pulled it to our car. After two trips, we were exhausted.

Four days after we left, we got another 10 inches of snow — 17 inches in less than a week — along with heavy rains while we sandbagged, a record flood, and blizzard winds. There was a second, maybe even higher, crest on the way. The city looked like an exhausted war zone.

Finally, they rescinded the mandatory evacuation and opened the dike on the road so we could drive to our home. The water had receded across the road. The city inspectors and insurance adjusters began to show up. The birds and wild turkeys returned.

The city declared our home uninhabitable.

Two homes in our neighborhood of 11 houses were destroyed. Three others had water in the basement. The peninsula was a mess from the clay dikes, home dikes, and roads damaged by heavy equipment. The second crest was lower than predicted. The clean-up began.

Fighting the record flood was the easy part.

Our home had 20% damage, according to FEMA. Fighting the flood was an exhilarating, high-energy experience — the best experience of creative chaos I’ve had. Cleaning the mess up afterwards and going to our wounded home and neighborhood were sad, painful, and depressing encounters with death and destruction. We rented a townhome in Fargo while we cleaned up. We would never again live in our home.

The neighborhood looked like a war zone after the flood waters receded: fences down, roads torn up, landscaping destroyed, sandbags stuck in the trees and buried in the ground, homes surrounded by sandbags and then dirt rings after the Army Corps of Engineers took the dikes down. Mud was tracked everywhere for weeks afterward. We cleaned water and sewage from our basement, ripped out wallboard, and threw away truck-loads of possessions accumulated over 15 years.

We entered a neutral zone of uncertainty and not knowing about our lives. About half of our neighbors wanted to stay, and began to explore ways to make their homes safer by elevating them, or building a clay dike or a concrete wall. The rest wanted to leave. For us, four floods in 12 years were enough. For others, this record flood was the first time they were threatened and once was enough. As one neighbor said about our once safe neighborhood, “Maybe nature doesn’t want us here anymore.” Melanie and I vowed to turn this disaster into an opportunity for transformation.

I knew that a neutral zone (the place between endings and beginnings) wasn’t just a place of confusion and uncertainty. The neutral zone can also be a condition for creativity if we can live with the discomfort and anxiety for a time.

Often people go into submission after a disaster and let others decide their destiny. We would not go quietly into compliance and submission to the bureaucracies and to those who re-victimize victims. We would assert ourselves, ask questions, and push back on bureaucratic pronouncements. We would attend every meeting held, and we would tell our story and express our opinions to anyone who would listen. We wanted to influence the chaos around us and shape our own future.

Part of me enjoyed the challenges of the flood’s aftermath. Another part of me felt scared of entering into new and bureaucratic domains. We fought for what we believed was right with insurance companies. I sent letters to the politicians and did what I could. I attended every City Council meeting for months after the flood and asked questions and told our story to the mayor, city manager, council members, and city engineer every chance we got. We found them to be good and caring people, willing to listen.

We expressed our fears of future floods with our elected state and federal officials. I visited the disaster center three times to try to get answer to my questions from FEMA and SBA officials. The front-line people were awesome: caring and compassionate. The bureaucracy — excessive process and slow to act — exhausted us, numbed our minds, and extended our patience to the breaking point. The rules, language, processes, procedures, and regulations were complicated and hard to understand. It would take about 1½ years to work through all the issues and bring the flood follow-up to a conclusion.

Our home was put in a project for buyouts. I asked the city engineer what motivated putting our home in this proposed FEMA project. He replied, “Because it makes sense.” That’s what responses to disasters need more of: what makes sense.

From time in the neutral zone, new visions form if we will live with uncertainty for a time.

Just before the flood, a job opened up in Minneapolis (225 miles southeast of us) that Melanie was interested in. The flood was traumatic for both of us but more so for Melanie, who had built the home and raised her three children there. She lost many possessions in the flood that held meaning for her. For her the beautiful home died the day the water came in. She did not want to return. She decided to go forward with her job application. Like everything at this time of our lives, the job process moved slowly.

We imagined and thought through different scenarios for what might happen with the job and our home. In our hearts, we most wanted to go to Minneapolis. My two daughters and five grandchildren lived there. I also looked forward to renewing old friendships from decades of earlier life in the Twin Cities. Two of Melanie’s three children would be living in Minneapolis that fall. The job would be a professional advancement and a challenge Melanie would enjoy. She would get to use talents and skills honed over a 30-year career.

We envisioned new adventures in our upcoming lives as empty-nesters and grew more and more excited. We decided that if Melanie got the job, we would go regardless of the fate of our home.

Suddenly things began to happen: Melanie was offered the job and compensation was negotiated and agreed upon quickly. Within 72 hours we had rented a beautiful home 15 minutes from her new workplace. Melanie gave her notice in Fargo and began work in Minneapolis 10 days later. We moved our possessions a month after that. The city purchased our home for a fair price a few months later. A year later, we purchased a new home. Melanie thrived in her new job.

The natural disaster created the conditions for us to renew our lives. We refused to be victims. Despite the difficulties, we felt alive as we grieved our losses. We grew as people. And, in the midst of a contentious time in America, we experienced the deep goodness and decency of the people around us. We will be forever grateful to them for the help they gave us.

Best wishes Texas.

 

 

 

 

Is This Who We Want to Be?

I simply am a mother who fights for her children, who fights to give them the best. Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos

 

NY Times, February 8, 2017:

Ms. [Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos] Rayos was 14 when she left Acambaro, a city in an impoverished corner of the Mexican state of Guanajuato, and sneaked across the border into Nogales, Ariz., a three-hour drive from Phoenix. She married — her husband is also undocumented, and thus did not want his name published —and gave birth to a boy and a girl, who are now in their teens [American citizens].

Ms. Rayos was working at Golfland Sunsplash in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix, when Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies swooped in on Dec. 16, 2008, arresting her and several other employees on charges of suspicion of identity theft and using forged documents to obtain employment.

She spent three months in a county jail, followed by three months in immigration detention, she told a reporter. In 2013, an immigration court ordered that she be sent back to Mexico, but her case had been on hold since the federal authorities — under the Obama administration — decided not to act on the deportation order.

Her son, Angel, still remembers the evening of her arrest — the knock on the door, the flashlight on the darkened living room, the sight of handcuffs on his mother’s wrists.

“I was in second grade,” he said. “I never forgot that night, and I’ve lived in fear of losing my mother every night since then.”

Ms. Rayos had a routine annual check-in with immigration officers in Phoenix scheduled for last Wednesday (2/8/17). She feared going. She knew what might happen under President Trump’s recent executive order—said to target criminals. She could skip the meeting or go into hiding. But she didn’t. She was arrested after more than 20 years in America, after she spent six months in jail, after she lived in uncertainty for five years before she was ordered deported and then four more years until she was deported to Mexico. I imagine she lived a fear and anxiety filled life.

To some Americans, Ms. Rayos threatens the safety of America—she is a criminal—maybe a terrorist. Really? A teenager when she came to America, she made her way. She faked a Social Security number so she could work. She married and had two children. She is not a criminal or terrorist.

I believe a system that leaves a humble woman–who sought only freedom and a better life–living in uncertainty as long as it left Ms. Rayos is fundamentally cruel and unfair—even violent criminals have a statue-of-limitations.

We should be better than this.

Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote of I-It and I-Thou relationships. I-It relationships relate to Ms. Rayos as an object, whose only value is extrinsic—she serves our food, cleans our homes, landscapes our yards or raises our children. In an I-It relationship we value Ms. Rayos only insofar as she serves our purposes. To many Americans, immigrants are not human beings but “things” they use and, since Trump, fear.

In I-Thou relationships, we see our shared humanity in others and are conscious of our often wrong assumptions about others. We realize that “crossers” are human beings just like us and “but for the grace of God, there goes I.” Almost all immigrants who come to America from Mexico and South America come from extreme poverty and helplessness and are in search of a better life for themselves and their children. Often their lives are in danger in their home countries. I am in awe of their courage.

Our local, state and national leaders have failed to formulate an immigration policy and system: A tough-love, compassion based approach to immigration that protects our borders, delivers swift justice, uses modern technology to keep track of people who come into and go out of the United States with rules and procedures that are true to America’s heritage as an immigrant nation. A system where accountability is balanced with compassion and fundamental human respect and decency.

I used to write that we live in a dark time. Now I say that we live in a time of madness. We must not become desensitized to those who use political power to harm the spirits of others. We must resist fiercely.

As we do, we must not become what appalls us and lose our humanity: In the face of this we pray. In the face of this we love. In the face of this we forgive. Because the vast majority of water protectors know this is the greatest battle of all: to keep our hearts intact.

 (Lyla June Johnston, young Native leader to Timothy Egan (NY Times, Dec. 2, 2016) at the North Dakota prairie camp where the Standing Rock Sioux are making a stand to keep an oil pipeline away from water that is a source of life for them.}

To Paris’ helpers, with love

I wanted to share Heather’s blog with a wise piece of advice for all.
Thank you Heather.

HeideBlog

When I heard about the attacks in Paris last night, my first thought was my friends. They come from all walks of life: journalists, musicians, authors, photographers. One is a tour guide; another is my underground muse. A couple are unemployed — and a couple more are retired. In spite of their diverse backgrounds, though, last night they all had something in common: They were in Paris, but I didn’t know where.

I spent hours sending emails and making phone calls, and grew more relieved with each response. By this morning everyone was accounted for, as the last of my Facebook friends checked in. (Although it makes me profoundly sad that Facebook even has this feature, I’m also profoundly grateful.)

Friends marked safe BLOG

Then the rest of it sunk in: How would Paris react to this horror? Would the city be paralyzed by fear? Would there be a backlash of scapegoating and…

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Who’s the Enemy?

Deeply anxious and afraid Republican primary voters express their deep outrage with their political leaders: maybe hatred best describes their generalized feelings towards the “establishment.”

They wrongly seek leaders who will take them back to a black and white world—to quote NY Times Columnist Thomas Friedman, “To the certainties and prosperity of the Cold War or post-Cold War eras—by sacking the traditional elites who got us here and by building walls against change…” (NY Times October 21, 2015).

Rigid black and white world views shatter in times of chaos and uncertainty. Stressed people and groups tend to regress in their maturity and goodness—see the Benghazi Committee. Fear and anxiety will do that. The inflexible want “parents” to take care of them, heroes to rescue them from dangers real and imagined and magicians to do the impossible. Judgement suffers and the either/or folks fall prey to false prophets: those who prey on their hopes and fears to advance themselves. Why do they listen over and over again to those who lie and use them?

The angrier they get the more demanding and inflexible they become. Poor leadership is not divorced from themselves: Republican extremists co-created the state of the Republican Party. Their leaders reflect them: the people who put the leaders in place (see the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives).

How do the majority of us who are not today’s Republican extremists avoid falling victim to regression?

Robert Greenleaf, author of Servant Leadership wrote:

Who is the enemy? Who holds back faster movement to a better world? Who is responsible for the mediocre performance of so many of our institutions?” It’s not the evil, stupid, ignorant, or apathetic people. If the world is transformed there will still be evil, stupid, ignorant, and apathetic people. The enemy is indifference.

The Republican extremists are not indifferent. Fear driven and victims of a mechanistic world view, they are just wrong about so many things.

We cannot go back to an earlier time: life is complex, changes always and moves steadily into an unknown potential-filled future. Resistance to the need for change only causes more fear, pain and danger for all. We avoid regression when we step boldly into our unknown futures and adapt as we go.

Democrats are angry too: enraged with Republicans. Their anger should be redirected to getting people who support their causes out to vote.

Will the election of 2016 move America to a positive future? A renewed future for America and her citizens depends on the poor, the young, students, immigrants, minorities and the middle class: on those who want to heal our planet, educate our citizens, reform immigration, have a robust middle class, and evolve human rights for all people.

The tired migrants, the cynical students, the disillusioned minorities, the anxious middle-class and the desperate must awaken and vote for the future they want for themselves. So simple—go vote for your self-interest.

God will not save us. False prophets will fail to be great, heroic leaders cannot endure, parents cannot take care of us and the tricks of the magicians are illusions. We are responsible.

This is not a time for indifference.

The Dearth of Competency

The everyday headlines about the lack of competence in our schools, churches, government, and organizations and institutions shake our confidence and belief that anyone can get things done right. Our personal and national zest for greatness appears exhausted and almost everywhere we look we see decline threaten our democracy and way of life.

Incompetence surrounds us. I fought for excellence and against incompetence at all levels throughout my 18 year career at the Star Tribune newspaper. Organizations were designed to keep good people down and the design works well. But excellence can be achieved even in such an enterprise, exhausting as it is.

I left the newspaper industry in 1994 to join a movement to transform how we work and lead in organizations. For 13 years I continued my battle against mediocrity. I met many wonderful people. But few excellent leaders or supervisors. Disengaged employees intimidated good employees and made excellence a crime punishable by threats, ridicule, and rejection. Today, twenty years after I joined the transformation movement, leadership and management and workplace cultures are more primitive than ever. Our organizations and institutions are too large and responsibility diffuse. Few hold others accountable.

But not all we label incompetence is incompetence. We sometimes expect too much of people, especially when they are learning new skills and information and doing new things or implementing new projects. We want our fixes to be fast, easy, cheap, and painless. That is magical thinking and not possible.

Change and new projects have learning curves and their implementations are often messy, inefficient, and people make mistakes. In new environments people must plan, act, reflect, and adapt constantly. Sometimes we need to remember that the chaos we experience is normal and the chaos of newness comes to order and it does so quickly. We need the wisdom to know the difference between genuine incompetence and the mistakes of change and newness and cut people some slack and give them time to get things right in new and difficult circumstances.

We like to blame others for our incompetence: worker incompetence is the fault of leaders; incompetent students are the fault of teachers. The problems of government agencies are the fault of President Obama. But the continuum from incompetent to excellence is a personal choice not the fault of someone else. I am responsible for my mediocrity or excellence.

Excellence isn’t just about work. Each of us—whatever our age, talents, and place in life–can choose where we want to be on the continuum from incompetence to excellence and in what areas of our lives—physical, emotional, intellectual, occupational, or character, creativity, or relationship excellence, for example.

Those who strive for their unique excellence in life work hard. They do not look for magic, quick-fixes, rescues by heroes, or something for nothing. They take responsibility for themselves, exhibit tenacity and moral courage, follow their own paths, and create their own lives. They understand that happiness comes from the pursuit of noble goals. And they renew themselves and find new sources of energy and spirit many times over the course of a lifetime. We should honor people for the excellence they display, not for their job title. I respect an excellent plumber more than an incompetent publisher.

Those who choose continual growth, learning, and self-discovery in pursuit of the person they could be rise above the mediocrity that surrounds them despite the difficulty.