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On the front line: Plant Services' LeRoy Sondrol played crucial role in saving UND from flood

LeRoy Sondrol, retired director of UND's Plant Services, visits with Jim Enlow, a roofer at UND, during a visit to the plant Thursday. Sondrol worked at UND for more than 40 years and at the time of the flood was a key go-to man when it came to making important decisions to both save the university and get buildings back up and running. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

The Flood of 1997 left the UND campus in a condition both challenging and advantageous. Though some of the buildings there had taken the full brunt of overland flooding and the rise of the English Coulee, much of the campus was left high and dry—or, at least what passed for that at the time—and was able to serve as a forward base for many city and emergency functions. Still, several key buildings and other campus assets were full of water, inundated in some places usually inaccessible, overlooked or unseen by the general public.

In that setting of water damage behind locked doors, LeRoy Sondrol was the man with the keys.

At the time of the flood, Sondrol was UND's plant services director, an area later known as facilities management. When the floodwaters began to rise, he was part of the effort to fight the Red River in high-risk areas of the city, a fight soon lost after the best efforts of determined residents. Sondrol returned to campus thereafter and became part of an initial core of roughly a dozen people devoted to protecting the university through the worst of the water's onslaught.

Resident expert

His expertise in the operations of the steam plant—the main source of heating for campus buildings—plus his great familiarity with the landscape of UND made Sondrol a key figure in the process of making decisions to save the university's priorities.

He describes the effort in simple terms.

"I did my job, is what I tried to do," Sondrol said.

Then-UND President Kendall Baker said it would "basically be impossible" to single out any one hero of the campus flood story, a point Sondrol himself underlined. Even still, Baker jumped to specifically identify Sondrol as a guiding force of the flood battle.

"LeRoy was enormously knowledgeable about the campus," Baker said. "As a consequence, he was able to advise us on what we wanted to do."

There was no shortage of campus facilities in need of being pulled back onto their feet. Sondrol said the order of operations was guided by meetings with academic deans and department heads to determine what each needed the most to carry out their duties.

"Research was No. 1, so we could get the money flowing back in for that," he said. "Then you get the classes ready, and then you get your housing and food services."

Beneath all of that were issues surrounding the steam plant, a host of challenges Sondrol described as the "paramount problem."

"We had to be able to put steam in the buildings" to heat water and bring the buildings back online, he said. By the time the floodwaters receded, more than 69 miles of steam and electrical lines had been impacted, though Sondrol said recovery money from FEMA actually yielded a silver lining of sorts—some of the ruined pipes were more than 80 years old and were in need of replacement anyway.

When taken as a whole, the flood wreaked more than $75 million in damages on campus. Monte Koshel, UND broadcasting director, joined Sondrol on a tour of the destruction, recording the damages with his video camera for historical—and insurance—documentation. Koshel remembers the journey taking them into the flooded basements and storerooms of buildings he'd never before set foot in, normally innocent environments rendered eerie by the post-disaster atmosphere.

"Everything's dark, kind of like in a movie, just beams of flashlights and the water sloshing is the only sound you hear," Koshel said. "You never knew what you were walking into."

One day, the documentarians cut off an electrical fire in the mechanical room of a campus research center. On another, they might have been salvaging food and supplies in a campus dining center. Koshel laughed as he recalled being startled by a floating bucket which drifted into the back of his leg in the pitch black of a lower level area in Leonard Hall. By the end of the campus tour, Koshel said the footage he gathered was eventually used to recover substantial amounts of money for the university through UND's insurance policies.

The flood provided no shortage of unusual situations for those who made it their business to witness everything. The UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences played host to at least one of them.

"There was a rumor the cadavers were floating in the water" in the basement storage chambers, Sondrol said. That proved to be untrue—embalmed bodies are "about three times their normal weight" and wouldn't float anyway, Sondrol says—but he investigated all the same to ensure that all was well.

"We knew everybody was resting peacefully, so we just left everything there," he said.

A good ending

The adventures of the flood would prove to be an endpoint for Sondrol's time at UND. In 1998, 42 years after taking a university job at the age of 19, he officially retired. He told the Herald at the time that his most satisfying achievement wasn't his work during the flood. Rather, he said, it was his role in making campus accessible for people with disabilities, a process UND began in 1972.

It wasn't a coincidence that his retirement landed about a year after the flood.

"To be honest with you, I was burnt out," Sondrol said, laughing. As tiresome as it might have been, he said the flood era was "one of the most rewarding times" in his career at UND as he got to see the community band together in the midst of adversity.

"I wouldn't want to go through it again," he said, "but it was a tremendous experience at that."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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