As Waters Rise, So Does a Community

Justin Sabo

A Greyshirt reflects on serving a small town faced with historic flooding in Northern Minnesota.

Over Memorial Day weekend I deployed on Operation Walleye Waters, Team Rubicon’s response to significant flooding in Kabetogama, MN, up near International Falls and the Canadian border. It’s smalltown America and the community continues to rally around those in need.

On the first day, our two strike teams helped one family the entire day, handling hundreds and hundreds of sandbags—load after load from a flatbed trailer and the bed of a 1-ton rental truck.

A view of the flooding in Kabetogama, MN. Photo by Justin Sabo.

The work had to be completed in chest-high waders. So high is the water that we had to load sandbags into canoes and rowboats and then float the boats over to the other side of the property where they were needed. We joked around throughout the day and did our best to keep spirits up despite the seemingly hopeless battle against the water.

Nearby, in the township hall parking lot, the Civilian Conservation Corp worked side-by-side with National Guard troops and work-release prisoners from the local jail to fill sandbags while residents picked up what they needed and fought the still-rising levels of Crane Lake. Volunteers from the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army were also there working to feed and hydrate the community that pours in and out of the township hall throughout the day. It was a sight to behold.

Proof of a resilient community helping its own in Kabetogama, MN. Photo by Justin Sabo.

On Saturday, May 28, water levels exceeded the previous record, set in 1914, and still had not crested. The work we performed in the morning to protect the main structure proved invaluable in the afternoon: the levels rose so high over the course of one day that the area we protected in the morning would have been completely flooded by the afternoon. Rains continued that night and into our next day.

One of the most impactful moments on this operation was when I met a nearby 89-year-old female resident who lives alone and who, for six days straight, stacked sandbags herself around her home. She was advised by the county that her home was a complete loss and that she needed to evacuate, but refused to go saying “whatever happens is meant to be.” 

It’s always an honor to be able to continue to serve others in some capacity. These people really needed the help—help that only people in chest-high waders slinging sandbags could provide. I’m proud to have been able to contribute in some small part to saving the livelihood of the family we assisted.

Greyshirts stand with a homeowner and his son-in-law at the end of a day spent responding to flooding in Minnesota. Photo courtesy Justin Sabo.
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