Drones, helicopters aid in flood fight
By Brittany Lawonn
FARGO - Authorities began planning the use of military aircraft technology to fight the flood two months before the waters even hit record level.
North Dakota officials got word just last week that they would be allowed to use a Predator drone aircraft to fly over the area, providing real-time images of the rising Red River.
"It's helped us an awful lot in monitoring ice jams, in detecting where there are breakouts," said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard.
This is the first time technology has played such a role in flood fighting.
Greg Gust, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the confidence with which forecasters can say the river has crested stems from images obtained by Predator drones flying over the river valley Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
"Our river forecasters are not only able to see in real time the aerial extent of the water but the flows going over land and all these breakouts, and actually measure that from those flights, which means getting an incredible handle on all that water we didn't know where it was," Gust said.
The unmanned aircraft is on loan from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The aircraft is permanently stationed in Grand Forks and being piloted from California, Sprynczynatyk said.
Officials monitoring the images in Bismarck and Fargo can relay to pilots where to direct the aircraft, typically used for military operations and border patrol, such as zooming in on a specific area, he said.
"To my knowledge, this is the first time we've used them for something like fighting a flood," said North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven.
Normally, a Guard team in Fargo remotely pilots the Predator drones around the world and is very familiar with what the aircraft can do from the standpoint of reconnaissance and surveillance of an area, Sprynczynatyk said.
He added that fighting a flood isn't really something the Guard trains for, but rather plans and prepares for by finding innovative and creative tools and resources. He cited Sunday's use of 1-ton sandbags as such tool and a first in the flood fight.
"These bags are normally used to haul soybeans," Sprynczynatyk said.
Using a Black Hawk helicopter, the Guard placed 11 of the sandbags along the north side of Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo to slow the flow of water coming into the building.
The reinforced plastic bags are cinched at the top and lifted by the helicopter's cable system. People on the ground direct the bag exactly where it needs to be placed.
The bags are being used to prevent failure and breaches in the dike, especially in areas where there may be erosion from the current, Sprynczynatyk said.
The new technology isn't going unnoticed by city officials.
"The difference between the '97 flood and this flood is we have an amazing amount of technology to help us fight this flood," said City Commissioner Tim Mahoney.
Nearly 3,000 Guard soldiers and airmen are on scene in North Dakota and Minnesota performing a variety of duties such as patrolling dikes, managing traffic and evacuations.
About 400 Guard personnel from Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota and Wisconsin are in North Dakota along with 2,000 North Dakota members, Sprynczynatyk said.
There are 334 Guard members in Minnesota.
Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki contributed to this report.