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Heidi Shaffer, Published March 22 2010

Flood profile on Mark Bittner: Meet the ‘brains’ behind the fight

He’s the quiet, steady force behind many of the flood-fighting decisions made in Fargo.

And while Mayor Dennis Walaker is called the heart of the flood, City Engineer Mark Bittner is the brains, says City Administrator Pat Zavoral.

Bittner is the mastermind behind Fargo’s line of defense against the Red River’s floodwaters.

Walaker and Bittner know each other well. They have worked together through most of the 11 floods Fargo has faced since the two began at the city in the 1970s.

“He’s been a good partner,” Walaker says of Bittner. “He doesn’t want a lot of attention. … I have become a different person because of all of this attention, but Mark has never changed.”

Fighting Fargo’s floods

It was under Bittner’s advice that the city took action to begin flood preparations in February 1997. Two months later, the Red River hit a 100-year high at 39.57 feet.

Following the ’97 flood, Bittner helped develop a flood response strategy as well as a list of areas that needed improvements to avoid future flooding problems, such as improving drains and flap gates and trying to devise more protection in south Fargo.

The upgrades throughout the area were mostly in place by spring 2009 when the Red River flooded again, reaching a record crest of 40.84 feet.

The protection designed by Bittner and his team of engineers was successful and helped to keep the swollen river contained.

“I think I’ve been given too much credit,” Bittner says.

But Walaker and many others at the city disagree.

“I would not want to work with anyone else but him,” Walaker says. “I have the highest admiration for him, and I mean that sincerely. I don’t usually blow smoke, but Mark is one of these people who deserves accolades.”

Many of Bittner’s associates describe him as the “quiet intellectual” behind the scenes.

“His outward demeanor is quite cool, but internally there’s a real fire that burns in terms of protecting this community. He’s developed this intense sort of focus on what needs to be done,” Zavoral said.

While Bittner may be soft-spoken, he makes his voice heard when disagreeing with a city decision.

“He’ll express issues if there’s a problem,” said City Commissioner Tim Mahoney. “If he doesn’t speak up, then you know what you’re doing is OK.”

Preparing for another round

The stress of a flood fight weighs heavier on Bittner these days as Parkinson’s disease limits his energy and diminishes his ability to put in as many hours as he worked in ’97.

“But it’s funny. During the flood I have more energy than I have during the rest of the year, so the body seems to be able to respond to it when you need it to,” Bittner said.

The same might be said about the resolve of Bittner and his coworkers.

This year’s flood fight came sooner than anyone predicted, and Bittner wasn’t sure the city could hold off the river’s water again.

“I was really concerned about our staff,” he said “They were just whipped (after last year).”

The announcement 10 days ago of an earlier flood tested the city’s planning as officials were forced to move up flood protection measures.

Bittner credits a well-oiled team under direction of Walaker and Zavoral for the speed of the city’s efforts.

Fargo’s future flood fights may be limited as the prospect of permanent protection looms.

The Metro Flood Study Work Group last Thursday recommended a North Dakota diversion. Bittner advised city officials voting on the project and said he supports the plan as a whole, whether the diversion is on the Minnesota or North Dakota side.

“Either one of them would help us. I think the North Dakota option does a better job of protecting us, but either one of them is better than nothing,” Bittner said.

Going into the future, Bittner is confident the city has learned from past floods and will continue to provide interim protection until a diversion is built.

And despite the accolades he receives for Fargo’s flood defense, Bittner takes the most pride in his employees.

“I’m (proud) just being head of this group of staff that are just unbelievable,” Bittner said. “I’m humbled to be their boss.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 235-7311