Volunteers help displaced River View Heights residents

The sprinklers that put out a blaze in one unit at Moorhead’s River View Heights left water damage in 16 apartments. When residents of the most badly damaged had to move everything out to enable repairs, volunteers stepped in to help the vulnerable men and women. (Photo/Russ Hanson.)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

When fire flared up in an apartment at River View Heights, the sprinkler system worked exactly as it was meant to: It flooded the flames and extinguished them in a matter of minutes. But that was only the first chapter of what could have been a disaster for some residents of the 104-unit high-rise – one that brought out the best in a group of Moorhead volunteers.

The 3 a.m. fire on Oct. 24 was limited to a single unit on the fourth floor. The damage, though, reached much farther, according to public housing director Dawn Bacon. “The most important thing, of course, was that no one was injured. Everyone was OK,” she says. However, the water that squelched the blaze brought far greater worries than the flames themselves.

It saturated the affected apartment and spread out to its neighbors. It soaked and dripped down to the second and third floors, then dampened the common areas below. Worst of all, it traveled down the shafts of the two elevators that the building’s residents, who are elderly or have disabilities, depend on to travel between its 14 floors.

Sixteen apartments were affected by the drenching. After inspectors took a close look for lasting damage, residents of 11 were permitted to return home. Five units, though, sustained serious damage, from soaked sheet-rocked walls to saturated flooring.

“The thing that was so hard was having to tell those residents they had to pack up everything – everything – in their units and move it into storage so repairs could be done,” Dawn says. “There was no time for them to prepare. One day everything was normal – the next, they had to get out. They were overwhelmed.

First, they needed places to stay. Dawn and her staff arranged hotel accommodations for three households, while the other residents stayed with friends. But how to clear their spaces to be refurbished?

“I put out a call on social media for donations of moving boxes and help in packing,” she says. “It was heartwarming to see strangers respond.”

Board member Michael Carbone came up with sturdy packing boxes from his store Drummer’s Journey. City Council member Shelly Dahlquist pitched in to help pack, along with a quartet of volunteers from Churches United and several members of the Clay County Social Services staff. A group of LDS youth helped load filled boxes into the portable storage units now stationed in the building’s parking lot. The United Church of Christ reached out to help fill other unmet needs.

In all, the process of clearing the way for repairs took about 10 days. “Our residents really did need some help, and we all appreciate the volunteers who stepped forward,” Dawn says. “When the job is done, we’ll also need help bringing everything back.”

Some good news brightened the recovery process. After careful inspection, the two nearly new elevators were cleared to go back in service. Both were replaced in a half-million-dollar project completed in Fall 2020, when they replaced the originals that dated back to 1968. The common areas, too, were cleaned and reopened.

Repairs have been completed on two of the affected apartments; residents were expected to return this week. Because of delays caused by supply chain issues, no completion date has been set for the other three. The total cost of the restoration is expected to approach $100,000.

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