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Jeff Kolpack, Published May 31 2009

Area leaders learned lessons during flood of 2009

These days, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker’s office is flooded with memorabilia, such as a thank-you poster signed by children from Fargo’s Washington Elementary. From his desk on the second floor of City Hall, he can see the trees lining the Red River.

He seems relaxed, as do leaders from other areas not long ago fighting a flood of epic proportions.

Such was not the case in March and April, when much of the Red River Valley was under siege.

The effort was emotional for everybody: homeowners, students, politicians and military personnel – anybody who lent a hand for that matter. In the end, the flood of 2009 will go down as a victory for most jurisdictions.

But in the process, as in most emergency situations, some things went right, some things went wrong and many leaders learned a few lessons.

Several took time recently to give us their take.

What went right: a communication win

It’s possible to write a book on how to beat back a major flood. In a simplistic approach, the formula goes like this:

Efficient communication + college and high school students + a large base of local contractors + engineering + experienced city management + military personnel + state government + federal government = success.

“You take anything out of the formula and it would have been a different situation,” Walaker said.

Fargo instituted a daily routine of televising its meetings and news conferences to better inform residents. It was a lesson from the 1997 flood on rumor control.

Internally, Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral said communication within city staff was better than in 1997, when some workers learned what was going on from local radio.

It was a high-stakes game of administrative decisions combined with a volunteer effort that some estimates place as high as 100,000. In Fargo, about 3.5 million sandbags and 300,000 yards of dirt held back the water.

And if it weren’t for a two-week cold snap in the height of the fight, nobody knows how high the river could have risen.

“This one had the possibility of something really big,” said Mark Bittner, Fargo’s city engineer.

What went wrong

One statement you probably won’t hear from Walaker anytime soon is giving thanks to the National Weather Service. He’s also not fond of a governmental push to evacuate the cities.

It was a late March day in the City Commission room just down the hall from his office. Walaker said a group of federal and state officials – specifically he mentioned North Dakota U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, North Dakota National Guard Maj. Gen. Dave Sprynczynatyk and a representative from the Office of Homeland Security – pressed him to evacuate the city.

It already had been a messy day. To ease the evacuation of cars going out of the city, the east-bound lane on Interstate 94 out of Fargo-Moorhead was closed, a decision Walaker said was made without him knowing.

“That was probably the most pressure I felt in all my years of being involved with the public,” Walaker said.

The decision was Walaker’s to make.

“Once you take all these people away from the primary line of defense, it’s over,” Walaker said.

Walaker said the federal government told him they didn’t want another Grand Forks or New Orleans, which was devastated when the levees were topped by Hurricane Katrina. The difference, Walaker said, was Fargo’s topography. In 1997, Grand Forks had about 800 homes next to the Red River where water could potentially reach the second floor or roof, he said.

“So when they breached, that was life threatening,” he said.

In Fargo, that definition of life threatening was restricted to homes in a small area between the water plant and Island Park. And if the weather service’s prediction of 43 feet had hit, it’s anybody’s guess as to what could have happened.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland would like to see the range of predictions eliminated. For instance, the weather service said a second crest would have had a 75 percent chance of reaching 41 feet and a 25 percent chance of hitting 42.8 feet.

“What that tells me is to protect to the high number,” he said. “If we don’t, it’s our negligence. If you’re going to predict 41, then predict it.”

What was learned

The city of Fargo learned a multitude of lessons after the 1997 flood. The list of lessons learned this time appears significantly less.

Walaker said he doesn’t think he would do anything different. Zavoral said he would have opened the Fargodome to sandbagging about five or six days earlier.

Fargo bought two “sandbag spider” machines and borrowed another from Grand Forks, giving the “Sandbag Central” facility in north Fargo the capacity to fill 250,000 to 300,000 sandbags a day.

“And we’re smugly thinking, ‘We have it made,’ ” Zavoral said.

But when the news hit of a crest of more than 40 feet, there would be no rest. So, as Zavoral put it, the dome became a “life of its own.”

Voxland said Moorhead needs to better protect its infrastructure, perhaps targeting smaller areas along the river that take a lot of resources to protect.

Still, Moorhead officials say they were satisfied with their flood fight.

“It’s a little hard to go back and dissect everything because whatever it was, it was so much so fast,” said Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman. “I’m not a military guy, but I think I better understand what a war zone is like. Every day was a battle. You might lose a couple of battles, but overall we won the war.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546