By Sgt. 1st Class David DoddsMarch 25, 2009
FARGO, N.D. - While deployed in Iraq, Spc. Ryan L. Karsky got quite used to the towering HESCO barriers that ringed his base.
These large modular steel baskets, lined with a fine meshy material, held compacted desert sand, gravel and chunks of concrete. They served as an effective shield against hostile fire and shrapnel.
Now, back home in North Dakota, Karsky, a member of the 817th Engineer Company of the North Dakota Army National Guard, has found a different use for the trusty barriers. He was among about 50 Guard Soldiers and Airmen constructing miles of HESCO barriers along low-lying parts of Fargo, which is dealing with major flooding.
The HESCOs are all that stand between the rising Red River and many of south Fargo's most flood-prone neighborhoods.
"I saw them all the time in Iraq," Karsky said, "but I never ever thought we'd be using them to fight a flood. I thought we'd be over here throwing sandbags."
New Since 1997:
Sandbag dikes were the protection of choice back in 1997, the last time the Red River seriously threatened the Fargo area and before many of the Citizen-Soldiers and Citizen-Airmen working the dike lines were even members of the Guard.
1st Sgt. Curtis W. Kaseman, also of the 817th, is one Soldier who remembers the 1997 flood fight well. And as a veteran of the war in Iraq, he's another Soldier who learned to appreciate the HESCOs for the protection they provided him in a combat zone.
Kaseman, of Jamestown, N.D. said the HESCO barriers in Iraq were much larger, sometimes as high as 20 feet, compared to the three-feet-tall versions being used in Fargo this week. The emplaced barriers are lined with plastic to help hold back the impending wall of water.
"They are not new technology as far as fighting floods is concerned, but they definitely are new around here since 1997," Kaseman said.
In fact, HESCO Inc. representatives say that the barriers actually were designed primarily for flood control and to impede hillside erosion. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan opened up a new market for the company.
HESCO Inc. is based in Hammond, La., just north of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, another area of the country that is accustomed to massive flooding.
What makes their barriers so beneficial is the speed at which they can be constructed compared to traditional sandbag efforts. Company specifications claim that what would take a crew more than 70 hours to do with sandbags can be done in 30 minutes with HESCO barriers.
Spc. Brett M. Steele and Karsky, both of whom live and work in the Bismarck area, quickly cleared a path and laid down a plastic base ahead of the rest of their crew, setting up and filling the HESCOs.
For them and the other Soldiers of the Jamestown-based 817th, it was a race against the clock and the swelling river. The unit has been placed on active duty orders and sent to Fargo to fight the flood.
They join more than 800 North Dakota Guard Soldiers and Airmen, most of whom volunteered, for the statewide flood-fighting efforts. All are working alongside civilian contractors, businesses and home owners to hold the high ground.
Before his unit was activated, Steele already was a Guard volunteer involved in flood fighting in central North Dakota, near Beulah. He said it was hard to just pick up and leave.
"But this is where we need to be now," Steele said. "My only hesitation in all of this is that I had to move from one spot in need to another one."
Friends helping friends:
Spc. Jordan J. Nygaard, Jamestown, also with the 817th, was amazed by the rapid-fire pace of the dike work going on around him on Tuesday. The Soldiers kept the HESCO assembly line humming, as a parade of dump trucks supplied fresh clay and dirt to the site near Fargo's Lindenwood Park. A fleet of Bobcat loaders, driven by civilian contractors, filled the HESCOs as quickly as they were set up.
"It's kind of intriguing to see nine Bobcat loaders working so quickly within a distance of one city block," Nygaard said. "There's a lot of moving parts. You have to watch out."
Gary Boatman, a Fargo resident whose mother lives near Lindenwood Park, was in the area and saw the work being done by the Guard. He wanted to help, so he brought his own Bobcat loader to the fight, complete with a crude cardboard sign that read, "Tell me what to do!"
"It's not just these neighborhoods that appreciate what the Guard is doing for us - it's the whole city of Fargo," Boatman said, between hauling loads.
The northern front:
On Fargo's north side, flood fighting was in full effect Wednesday morning, between 14th and 15th Avenue North.
Because of the terrain in the area, HESCO barriers could not be used, according to 1st Lt. John W. Peyerl, a volunteer from 136th Combat Service Support Battalion in Grand Forks.
Peyerl said about a 130 Guard Soldiers and Airmen were forming a chain to move sandbags and place them about two feet high.
"They're a little sore out there today, but I don't think any of them are sorry they signed up for this,"
Peyerl said. "This is what they want to be doing and they are out having a good time."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Elliot Steinbrink, with the North Dakota Air Guard's 119th Wing, had a little more on his mind than some of the other volunteers on the sandbag line who had come from other parts of the state. His home is only blocks away from the river.
"It makes me nervous, but everyone needs the help, not just me," Steinbrink said. "When you're working as a National Guardsmen, it means something. People recognize that and it feels good."