After the flood: Airman and her husband piece life together in wake of North Dakota disaster.
This spring, Senior Airman Ashley Woods deployed to Afghanistan, where she helped rebuild the war-torn nation as a member of a security forces unit. Less than six months later, she returned to Minot, N.D., to rebuild her own home.
In June, while Ashley was in Afghanistan, the Souris River, which cuts through the heart of Minot, rose some 20 feet and flooded most of the town. Woods' home, a 100-year-old house on a corner lot, was located in one of the hardest hit areas. The floodwater stopped just short of the second story, damaging everything below it.
"It was the first house my husband, Michael, and I bought," she said. "There it was, destroyed by water. It was just terrible, surreal."
Her feelings of disbelief were outweighed only by those of helplessness. From Southwest Asia, she could only watch as news reports showed the rising water and resulting devastation.
"That night I called Michael and he was like, 'Don't worry. Everything's fine,'" she said. "But of course, it wasn't, and he was just trying to spare me the details of how bad it was."
And it was bad.
Water, water everywhere
Michael was on a trip to California when he got a call from a friend in Minot. Michael could hardly believe what he was hearing.
"You've got to get back here," the man said. "The town's supposed to flood, and they're telling everyone to get out."
Michael couldn't wrap his head around the idea of a flood in Minot. However, the next day he booked a flight and headed home. Once home, though, the gravity of the situation still hadn't sunk in.
"People were moving everything out of their homes and making plans to get out," Michael said. "I wasn't taking it too seriously. I just moved some stuff upstairs and really wasn't planning on doing anything else."
When friends started moving stuff out for him, it finally started setting in that this could be for real.
"Basically they were like, 'This is a real threat and you need to take it seriously,'" he said.
So, Michael moved everything out, locked up the house, headed over to a friend's and waited.
"After a few days, city officials were like, 'False alarm,'" Michael said. "We were allowed to go back home and everyone felt like we just dodged a bullet."
Minot residents returned home, and moved everything back in. For the next two weeks, life was back to normal.
Then, the phone rang again.
"We were told the city was ordering mandatory evacuations again," Michael said. "The water was coming, and people needed to be out by the next evening."
Because the previous evacuation had turned out to be a false alarm, some people didn't act upon the new threat. Michael, figuring he had nothing to lose, moved everything out again and hunkered down to wait for the water.
This time, it came.
Michael went to work the next morning, and by the time he left in the evening, the water was already covering the town. The threat that had seemed far off and unimaginable was now staring him in the face.
"I remember standing on the Main Street bridge, looking over at my neighborhood and seeing the water coming over the sides of the levies. Seeing all those houses with water up to their roofs, it finally hit me," he said. "That's when I was like, 'Wow, we're actually flooding.'"
The wait for the flood to come was over. The wait for the water to leave began.
For Ashley, the wait was excruciating. She wasn't there to see what was happening, and she couldn't help her husband. All she could do was wait for his phone calls and watch reports of the flood on the news.
"It was hard," she said. "I felt so far away, so helpless."
The day of the flood, Michael called her and told her the situation. After their conversation, Ashley felt numb, unbelieving.
"I just couldn't believe it was really happening," she said. "Not to our town. Not to our house."
But, her disbelief soon turned to acceptance and relief.
"At the end of the day, all that mattered was Michael was okay and our stuff was safe," she said. "Everything else, we could fix, and I knew we could get through this together."
Hearing of her situation, Ashley's deployed command offered her the chance to return home early. Ashley and Michael talked it over, and they decided she should stay in Afghanistan to complete her deployment.
"At that point, there really wasn't anything I could do back home," she said. "The town was flooded and everyone was just waiting for the water to go down."
In addition, Michael didn't want her to come home to the sights he was seeing every day: home after home buried in dirty, oily water.
"It was hard enough I had to see our home like that," he said. "There was no reason to have her come home to that."
Home sweet home
The water did recede, but not nearly as quickly as it arrived. It was nearly a month before some parts of the city were open to residents.
To help pass the time, Michael did whatever he could to make things easier for himself and Ashley. He signed up for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, put their names on the list for a FEMA trailer and started planning the rebuilding process.
A few weeks later, Ashley's deployment was over, and she came home.
"I didn't even want to see the house the first few weeks I was back," she said. "Everybody kept telling me, 'Don't look at it, just enjoy your time back, and then go see it.'"
She stayed away for a while, but a mixture of curiosity and longing eventually drew her back.
"We finally decided it was time to go see it, so we drove down there," she said.
What they found was even worse than they had imagined. The front door was jammed and had to be kicked in. Once the door was open, a sickening smell greeted them. Mold, slime and grime clung to what remained of the walls; the floorboards were warped and rotted; the back deck and fence were missing and the entire first floor had a general sense of decay. The basement was still full of water.
"It was bad," Michael said. "We'd prepared ourselves mentally, but it was still a shock to see that much damage."
The initial shock wore off, though, and the couple set to work, making a list of what needed replacing and what would need to be torn out. Then, it was time to get to work.
"Some friends came over to help us out, and we just tore everything out of the house," Ashley said. "All that was left was the framing and concrete."
The couple accomplished all of this while still performing their day jobs, Ashley at Minot Air Force Base with the 91st Security Forces Group and Michael as a surveyor for a local oil company, and staying with friends in a town 25 minutes away. The couple was in line to receive a FEMA trailer, but none had been delivered yet.
"That was a rough stretch," Ashley said. "Not only were we working our normal jobs during the day and then on the house at night, but we didn't even have our own place. We were thankful to have somewhere to stay, but we hadn't had any real time alone together since I got back from Afghanistan."
Then, in the first week of October, nearly four months after the flood, the Woods finally got their trailer. It was a small, one bedroom trailer, but for them it was a little piece of paradise.
"We were together, and that's what was important," Ashley said.
The trailer was placed in the back yard, making working on the house a much easier process. Now, instead of driving across town, the couple simply walked 20 steps.
The main goal has been to get the house ready for winter. North Dakota winters can be harsh and without proper preparation, the home's foundation is at risk of cracking.
"Right now, the big push is to get our utilities in," Michael said. "That way, we can keep the house warm and safe this winter. Then we'll start really getting at the remodel in the spring."
The bulk of the remodeling the couple plans to do themselves. While FEMA provided flood victims with a grant to help them rebuild, the Woods will be hard pressed to make the money stretch far enough to cover all their remodeling costs.
The couple isn't totally alone, though. Friends, family and coworkers, including Airmen from the base, all contribute where and when they can. A friend even came all the way from Northern California to install the couple's heating and ventilation.
"All we had to do was pay for his ticket out here and give him a place to sleep. He's doing the rest free of charge," Michael said. "We've been really blessed to have people like that around us, people who are willing to do stuff like that."
The house may be a shell of its former self, but it's not the end of the world to the Woods. It's actually quite the opposite.
"It's like we get a new start," Ashley said. "So we're excited about the future and starting this next chapter of our lives together."
And this time not even a flood will dampen their spirits.
"We now have flood insurance," Ashley laughed.
The water did come. It damaged the Woods' town and the Woods' home, but it did not damage their spirit. The water did leave behind damage and decay, but for the Woods it also left a sense of renewal, of growth and of thankfulness.
"We'll rebuild and we'll be okay," Ashley said. "We've got each other, and we've got the trailer. Everything is going to be all right."
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STORY BY TECH. SGT. MATTHEW BATES
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|Title Annotation:||Senior Airman Ashley Woods|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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