One family's fight against the flood

The Witthoeft family
The Witthoefts stand on the deck of their home in Moorhead, with the flooding Red River behind them. Left to right: mother Karen, son Joel, 20, and father Brian. In front is Nick, 9.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Even in the midst of a flood, Karen Witthoeft still feels the need to straighten up when company drops by.

"You can see that the carpet is really, really dirty, which normally would drive me crazy," said Karen Witthoeft, "but it hasn't bothered me at all."

During the 2006 flood
This photo shows the Witthoefts' house, and its flood wall, when the Red River flooded in 2006.
Photo courtesy of the Witthoeft family

The Witthoeft family lives in a split-level home that usually sits about a football field's length away from the Red River.

Now, the river is just below their deck, held back not by sandbags, but by a uniquely constructed dike made of wood. It's built like the wall of a home, only stronger. Karen says watching to see if their dike will hold has been nerve-wracking.

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"It's kind of a rollercoaster. There've been a couple of times when we've been ready to cash it in, very close to just letting it go," said Karen Witthoeft. "And there's just something that keeps -- Brian has just been hanging in there."

Karen and her husband Brian still have electricity and running water in the house. But they've cut back on showers and try to use as little water as possible. Relatives pitch in to do the laundry.

Behind the dike
The Witthoefts built this dike just below their deck to hold off the floodwaters. It's built like the wall of a home, only stronger. The pump runs constantly.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The low point for the family was last Thursday night, when the water was quickly rising. Their entire neighborhood was asked to evacuate. Brian Witthoeft says he thought the battle had been lost. They pulled out their pumps and prepared to leave.

"That night was really terrible. We were all crying as we were moving things out. We were told that we had to get out," he recalled. "My brother-in-law and I sat down at 12:30 that night and talked about it and said, 'OK, it's over.'"

But then Brian noticed the neighbor's pump was still running. He called a friend on the Moorhead fire department for advice.

"And I said, 'Can we stay and fight, or do we have to leave?' He said, 'You don't have to leave. Let's see what morning brings,'" said Witthoeft. "So we put the pump back in and we went from, emotionally at the lowest point, to a pretty good high. Not a great high, but a pretty good high."

Joel Witthoeft
Joel Witthoeft, 20, has taken time away from his job at Home Depot. He and his dad have monitored their dike nearly 24/7 since last week.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

That night the Witthoefts did move their beds, clothes and a big screen TV to a vacant office in a building they own in Moorhead's industrial park. That's where they sleep off and on. It's a place they can go to get away from the pressures of dike-watching and pump maintenance.

Joel Witthoeft, 20, has taken time away from his job at Home Depot. He and his dad have monitored their dike nearly 24/7 since last week.

"I've been trying to stay calm. It's been kind of hard to sleep, knowing that dad's sitting here all night, so I've been coming here at night watching pumps so he can get some sleep," said Joel.

Joel's little brother, 9-year-old Nick, says he's amazed that the dike his father built has held back all that water.

The basement of the Witthoeft's home in south Moorhead. The family has removed the furnishings and stashed some sandbags, just in case.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Nick has been out of school for more than a week. He helps out a bit watching the dike with his dad, but finds plenty of time to play video games. Mostly, Nick has been taking it all in stride.

"I've had some good times. I've gotten to sit in one of the Army vehicles, which was pretty fun for me. And I've just been seeing some stuff that I normally wouldn't be able to see," said Nick. "And the basement hasn't gotten wet, so I'm saying it's been a good experience."

The Witthoefts have lived in this riverside home since 1999. Two years earlier, in the big flood of 1997, the house had four and a half feet of water in the basement.

Karen Witthoeft says they've battled floods several times since then, and have gotten pretty good at it.

"We understand living on the river means that we do this. And so we've tried to remain calm, because it doesn't do any good to get crazy," she said.

When asked how long the family can keep going, Karen responded, "as long as we have to. We made it through the first part. I'm sure we'll make it through the second. I feel confident that we will."

The Red River has been steadily dropping since it crested last weekend. But the people of Fargo-Moorhead can't let their guard down yet. Forecasters say the river will rise again, maybe a couple weeks from now, as warmer temperatures melt the snow that's fallen up and down the Red River Valley.

Click here to see a video walkthrough of the Witthoeft property shot by Joel Witthoeft on Sunday.