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Brittany Lawonn, Published May 31 2009

Technology aids modern flood fighting

Fargo-Moorhead once burned down a building to fight a flood.

Now, 112 years later, the area relies on flood-fighting tools such as unmanned aircraft and 1-ton sandbags.

New technology has changed the way we fight floods. The rising water that once forced residents to flee is now kept at bay by barriers built out of synthetic sandbags, rubber tubes and portable dams.

Permanent dikes have been placed to brace for the once-named “Raging Ruby Red,” sparing places such as Fargo’s Island Park from living up to its name.

Advancements in technology also have made getting and spreading information faster and easier, helping keep the public informed and one step ahead of the rising water. Area officials are unsure whether the technology used to fight the 1997 flood would have been enough to stave off the fast-paced flood of 2009.

Flood-fighting efforts also have grown over time as cities have stretched out.

When the Red River topped flood stage five different times in 1962 – with crests from 23.54 to 28.44 feet – an estimated 30,000 sandbags were filled to fight the rising water.

By comparison, an estimated 6 million sandbags were filled this year to hold off floodwaters of 40.82 feet.

Old photographs and newspaper articles provide accounts of past flood fights, demonstrating how certain aspects have changed and others have remained much the same.

Information accessibility

During Red River flooding in 1952, city engineers opened their offices on weekends to provide the public with street elevation figures and probabilities for basement flooding.

Forty-five years later, people flocked to Fargo-Moorhead city engineers’ offices to look at oversized elevation-level maps to help fight the 1997 battle.

That wasn’t as much the case in 2009, as investments in computerized global positioning systems and geographic information systems allowed cities and counties to send residents to Web sites to quickly find what they needed.

Updated maps and technology allowed consultants to compare projections with the actual river flow in a more real-time way, Bittner added.

The public was also able to use that information.

In 1997, officials largely relied on black-and-white photographs depicting where floodwaters had gone in the past.

Officials now have detailed, topographical maps that allow them to see the pros and cons of placing emergency levees in certain areas before making decisions, said Cass County Engineer Keith Berndt.

‘Couldn’t have done it’

The new technology was especially useful as crest projections reached groundbreaking heights of 42 or 43 feet, allowing engineers to design what they needed to do each day.

“Without those tools, I don’t think we could have done that,” said Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman.

The new technology sped the process, allowing officials to not be shut down by daylight, Bittner said.

In 1997, the flood fight plans started in February – two months before the 39.57-foot crest of April 17. Crunching the data was really slow, especially on the computers available at the time, Bittner said.

The rapid rise in this year’s crest predictions would have been impossible to manage with 1997 technology, said Fargo City Manager Pat Zavoral.

“We couldn’t have gone from 31 feet – which was our protection line in ’97 – to 41 feet, which we had to have in 2009,” Zavoral said.

Engineers spent six weeks drawing up flood protection plans in 1997.

“All we had was highlighters on contour maps,” Bittner said.

New flood-fighting tools

Several other new flood-fighting tools were unleashed in 2009, including an unmanned aircraft, Hesco barriers and a sandbagging machine.

A Predator drone aircraft on loan from U.S. Customs and Border Control provided real-time images of the rising Red River.

Social networking sites for better and faster communication to flood fighters this year were not around in 1997.

Local authorities also credited the CodeRED Emergency Notification System that sent out alerts to phone numbers people punched in to alert them to emergencies.

City and county Web sites, along with multiple media sites, were also constantly updated with information. One thing that has remained the same throughout history: the need for volunteers.

When floodwaters rose in 1943, North Dakota State University’s president promised any male student and faculty member would help by rescuing people or removing property.

In an effort to save some homes that were threatening to break away from foundations and float away, residents tied them down with cables.

Volunteers were called again in 1952 as sandbaggers were needed to fight off the 34.65 feet of water that forced 1,000 F-M residents from their homes and inundated 44 city blocks.

During that fight, hospital patients were evacuated using amphibious duck boats.

Long before, in 1897, many people simply got out of the way.

Riverfront property was home to the poor. Unsanitary conditions made the land cheap. The damage was worse in Moorhead, where one family fled by crawling out a second-story window into a boat.

The raging water washed away houses and barns, leaving them “bobbing around, upside down and in all positions,” according to an 1897 article.

Sidewalks and cedar paving blocks washed away as the water spread. Rescue parties went out in steamers, one of which sunk after hitting ice.

In efforts to save new bridges from breaking off shore and floating, officials weighted them down with steam thresher rigs and railroad cars.

But officials worried that an old elevator near the Front Street Bridge, now Main Avenue, “would swing loose and knock out a section” of the bridge.

So they set it on fire, only to have the bridge be set ablaze on the Fargo side, an 1897 newspaper article states.

“After burning awhile, the old building concluded to start down the river, and landed on the Fargo approach to the bridge, which was immediately set on fire.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn at (701) 241-5541