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Tracy Frank, Published May 31 2009

Complacency, fatigue rise with waters

It wasn’t long after people had to be rescued by boat from the flooded Heritage Hills neighborhood of south Fargo that others were asking to build there.

When the water was 38 feet – 20 feet above flood stage – Fargo City Planner Jim Gilmour received a call from someone wondering if he could still build in Heritage Hills.

“He didn’t believe it would happen again and figures he can get in and out on a boat,” Gilmour said.

The lure of riverfront property often lulls residents into a complacent attitude about flooding, making it harder for city leaders to resolve flood problems.

“When it’s July and August and the grass is green and the water is down and the deer are in the backyard in the morning, it’s a different picture of riverfront property ownership than when it is April, or in this case, March 28 or 29, and there’s a lot of water,” said Michael Redlinger, Moorhead city manager.

If complacency is not the enemy, fatigue certainly can be.

Flood fatigue

For Mike Palmer, the flood fight was intense.

The 70-year-old Fargo man pushed his body past the point of exhaustion as he sandbagged and then filled sandbags to help out.

But eventually, the rising Red River wore him down.

The first crest was one thing.

“Then the National Weather Service comes out and says there’s another one coming – it’s going to be 43 feet,” Palmer said. “About that time you just kind of sit down and say, ‘What the heck is the use?’ ”

People can only last so long in crisis mode, said Mark Doerner, North Dakota Psychological Association public education coordinator.

“Eventually they have a choice to make. It’s either start acting as if things are normal or continue to operate in that intense state and perhaps feel even more worn out or stressed,” Doerner said.

Palmer’s family was coming for Easter, which fell between crests, so he moved his belongings back into the basement and took the drain plugs out before the second crest, he said.

“I just said, ‘Well, I’m done. If it comes, it comes,’ ” Palmer said. “You can’t have your basement in the middle of the living room when you’ve got 20 people in your house.”

Palmer was hardly alone in his desire for normalcy.

At Minnesota State Community and Technical College, discussion turned away from the flood fight, said Chuck Chadwick, MSCTC director of advancement.

“Staff and students started to talk mostly about classes and work,” Chadwick said. “There is a sense of being tired and just wanting the flood experience to be over.”

People in Harwood, N.D., started to talk about dike removal after the first crest, but then thought better of it, said Thomas Linnertz of Harwood.

“At first everyone left their yard lights on at night. That quit after the first crest,” he said. “Visiting each other, discussing what to do came to an end.”

Some people might start to put their lives back together a little early because they physically, psychologically and emotionally need to be done with the fight, Doerner said.

“Some people sort of become blind to the truth because they just can’t handle the truth anymore,” Doerner said.

Becoming complacent

Redlinger said he fielded phone calls from Moorhead residents who wanted to take the sandbags down a couple of days after the first crest.

“The challenge that we had was, all of the drama and the emotion that went into ramping up for that first crest was so much energy that people just wanted to get back to normal,” Redlinger said.

The same scenario played out across the river.

“The water isn’t even off the sandbags and we’re getting calls saying, ‘I want my life back to normal,’ and that’s just natural,” said Pat Zavoral, Fargo city administrator. “You’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot in terms of what are you going to do with a long-term solution.”

In discussing a vote on a half-cent sales tax initiative designed to pay for permanent flood control measures in Fargo on April 22, Mayor Dennis Walaker said it needs to go forward “very quickly” because people can have short memories even after major events.

Palmer agrees and said it’s a legitimate tactic.

“Once you capture the bank robber and put him in jail, people quit worrying about him,” he said. “They don’t think about another one coming along.”

Another reason for complacency is that local damage has been relatively minimal.

“If we had experienced what Grand Forks-East Grand Forks went through in 1997, we probably wouldn’t become so complacent,” Chadwick said.

In 1997, the flooded Red River wiped out entire neighborhoods in the two communities, damaged and destroyed numerous homes, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents, and cost billions of dollars in damage.

“We’re not good students of history,” Palmer said. “We forget the past instead of learning from it.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526