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Soldiers add muscle to International Falls sandbagging effort

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Sandbagging homes
A crew of Minnesota National Guard soldiers builds a sandbag dike around Fred Smith's house on Rainy Lake on Friday, June 20, 2014.
John Enger/MPR News

When emergency officials in northern Minnesota realized the scope of the flooding that has hit the International Falls area this week, they knew it was time to call in the cavalry.

  On Friday, help arrived from 108 solders with Minnesota National Guard Troop C, 1-94th Cavalry. They arrived in International Falls to fire up a massive sandbag loading machine at Kerry Park before heading to flooded areas to help homeowners.

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  "These are all Minnesota boys," Sgt. First Class Troy Smith shouted over the tumult of engines and sand landing in bags as his men worked the machine.

Pallets of sandbags stack up at Kerry Park.
Pallets of sandbags stack up at Kerry Park in International Falls on Friday, June 20, 2014. More than 108 National Guard soldiers arrived Thursday night. Since they started work Friday morning, sandbagging production has increased.
John Enger/MPR News

  The troop, which Smith said is affectionately known as "Crazy Troop" for unknown reasons, is based in Cloquet.  

Gov. Mark Dayton ordered soldiers to the area to help the Koochiching County emergency response effort. Public Health and Human Services Director Terry Murray said the county can use the extra hands.

  It's been a very long haul, Murray said. The first day of sandbagging late last week drew 400 volunteers, and more came to match the flood waters. Thursday there were nearly 1,000. Even so, Murray said they're starting to burn out.

  "They've had to take some people to the hospital just from pure exhaustion," he said. "They just won't quit working."

  The National Guard is a welcome sight for residents like Fred Smith, who owns one of many homes built on low ground between Route 20 and Rainy Lake near International Falls.

  Friday morning, Smith stood slapping mosquitoes in his backyard as his heels sank deep into what looked like a soggy patch of lawn, but actually was the encroaching flood waters of Rainy Lake.

Fred Smith stands in his flooded Rainy Lake yard.
Fred Smith stands in his flooded Rainy Lake back yard on Friday, June 20, 2014. Hea€™s been sandbagging for a few weeks as the lake rose past historic flood levels. Friday he got some help from the National Guard.
John Enger/MPR News

  A few weeks ago, Smith saw heavy rains in the forecast and started laying sandbags. The rains have taken the lake past historic levels and forecasters predict enough additional precipitation to boost the lake nearly 16 more inches over the next week.

  Like many of his neighbors, Smith is exhausted and outpaced by the rising waters.

  He got some relief when half a dozen "Crazy Troop" soldiers arrived at his house with pallets of sandbags and a lot more energy than he could muster. 

  "I don't have flood insurance," Smith said. "That's why we're doing this."

National Guard troops fill sandbags.
National Guard specialist Joseph Martin of Troop C1-94th Cavalry tosses another sandbag onto a loading pallet on Friday, June 20, 2014.
John Enger/MPR News

  Some structures have already been lost, and as waters rise more over the next week, more will need sandbagging.

  Murray has started to lose track of all the sandbags. By this point, hundreds of thousands have been used. Another 50,000 were tied and shipped off Thursday, and with the Guard working, he figures output is about to spike.

  Most of the sandbagging is happening near populated areas. There are more houses near International Falls, but Voyageurs National Park is also taking a hit.

  Acting park director Beth Lowthian said 38 of the park's 279 campsites are closed, there are signs warning boaters of debris at launch sites, and some docks are underwater.

  "Some or our archaeological sites are being eroded," she said.

  Lowthian hasn't yet made it to flooded areas of the park to assess how the water has affected visits to the park or how many pieces of the park's buried history may have washed away.