Spring flooding

'I want to do my part': Hundreds of Minnesotans volunteer in Stillwater flood effort

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The volunteers could fill 30,000 or more sandbags by week’s end. They’ll be used to secure a yet to be constructed 2,000 foot dike.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Hundreds of volunteers began filling thousands of sandbags along the banks of the St. Croix River in Stillwater this week, where a state of emergency is in place because of expected flooding. 

It’s messy, repetitive and physically demanding work. 

Even so, coordinators of the effort had no problem filling a week’s worth of volunteering slots.

“We saw it on the news, and Minnesota got a lot of snow this year. We were both retired, so we thought — we can do that. Let's go,” said Karen Bernier, 62. She and her husband came to Stillwater from the city of Wyoming north of Forest Lake. It’s their first time volunteering to fill sandbags.

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The city says it's very unlikely the 1965 flood record will be broken this spring but that there is about a one-in-three chance the flooding this year will surpass the 2001 level, which was the second worst in Stillwater.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“I had the time, and why not come down and help?” Bernier said “Sounds like the river’s going to come up at some point quite a bit, so why not help and be prepared?”

John Rheinberger is far from a first-timer. The 74-year-old Stillwater resident has sandbagged in downtown several times. The operation is much more organized and sophisticated than it was when he helped fight his first flood as a 16-year-old boy, Rheinberger said. That was the 1965 flood of the century that still holds the record high water mark in Stillwater.  

“That was the flood where supposedly the kids saved the city," Rheinberger said, adding that while it was teenagers who came to the rescue more than a half century ago, now many senior citizens are at the various workstations.

Some of them, like Rheinberger, are the same people who fought the 1965 flood.

A man shovels sand while wearing a safety vest.
74-year-old John Rheinberger, a volunteer from Stillwater poses for a portrait in Stillwater, Minn., on Monday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“There wasn't anybody older than 40,” Rheinberger said of the 1965 effort. “Now it's just the opposite. I don't see anybody under 40.”

The city says it's very unlikely the 1965 flood record will be broken this spring but that there is about a one-in-three chance the flooding this year will surpass the 2001 level, which was the second worst in Stillwater.

A person poses for a portrait
Cathleen Hess from the Stillwater-based social service organization, ‘Community Thread,” which was charged with enlisting hundreds of volunteer sandbaggers this week.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“When there's a need, people show up,” said Cathleen Hess from the Stillwater-based social service organization, “Community Thread,” which was charged with enlisting hundreds of volunteer sandbaggers this week.

“They care and they're here to help and they want to make sure that Stillwater, which is a place we all love, that it stays safe for the business owners and for residents,” she said.

Those giving their time and labor to the effort are critical to holding back the river, said  Stillwater Parks Superintendent Jason Grode.

A person poses for a portrait
Stillwater Parks Superintendent Jason Grode is one of many city employees prepping for flooding. He says those giving their time and labor to the effort are critical to holding back the river.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“With all the volunteers and shifts that they're working this week, it's going to be a huge help for us to shore things up,” he said.

The volunteers could fill 30,000 or more sandbags by the week’s end. They’ll be used to secure a yet to be constructed 2,000 foot dike.

An old photo of a dike
The 1965 Stillwater dike.
Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

Across the street from the sandbag filling area, the marketing manager of the River Market Community Co-Op Andre Bessette said he and others are very appreciative of all the work everyone is doing to keep the river from flooding businesses.

"It's unbelievable,” Bessette said. “And it just I think represents the community that we have here and the way people pitch in to help each other, the residents, the businesses."

For now, all of the volunteer shifts are covered. Additionally, much of the area is closed that separates downtown from the St. Croix, including several parking lots and streets.  Downtown businesses remain open, city officials underscore. 

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Volunteers fill sandbags in Stillwater, Minn., on Monday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Another volunteer, John Reinhart of White Bear Lake, spent part of Monday and Tuesday helping to fill sandbags. And he says he'll be back Wednesday. 

“First time,” Reinhard said. “I figured I'm retired, now let's get down here and do it. I love this town. So I want to do what I can do to do my part.”

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