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Published March 23 2010

Leaders ask head of FEMA to keep temporary dikes

Federal, state and local leaders from North Dakota pressed the nation’s top emergency management official on Monday for the flexibility to leave temporary clay levees in place after a flood instead of having to tear them down and rebuild next time.

Craig Fugate didn’t commit to the idea, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator said he wants to return to take a closer look at the Red River basin and which flood protection measures should be considered temporary.

During a stop in Fargo, Fugate reminded Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, Gov. John Hoeven, the state’s congressional delegation and others that FEMA isn’t in the permanent dike-building business.

“But the emergency needs to be looked at more as far as what is the overall threat in this basin and what protective measures may be needed, and that may be again not necessarily tied to just a rise and fall in the river but looking at some other issues as well,” Fugate said.

Fugate’s comments came after a bus tour that took him past concrete floodwalls in north Fargo and clay dikes in south Fargo’s Timberline subdivision, where he snapped pictures with his cell phone.

Fargo built roughly five and a half miles of clay dikes this spring. City officials would like to preserve about three miles of dikes – including those in Timberline – as “interim” levees for the next 10 years or so until a diversion or other permanent protection system is in place, City Engineer Mark Bittner said.

However, to be reimbursed by FEMA for the cost of erecting temporary dikes, the city must remove them after a flood – a rule local officials want FEMA to reconsider.

In areas that receive a presidential disaster declaration, FEMA normally pays 75 percent of flood-fighting costs, or up to 90 percent for catastrophic events such as last spring’s record flood, when Fargo built 46 miles of earthen levees.

The Army Corps of Engineers also requires cities and counties to remove the temporary dikes it builds unless they’re upgraded to corps standards.

This year, Fargo financed and built the dikes in Timberline and Rose Creek on its own so it could leave them up after the flood.

Fugate said he wants to visit with city engineers, the corps and the National Weather Service when he returns to find out if the area is returning to near-normal weather conditions or if there’s an ongoing threat of rapid flooding with rainfall events.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., told Fugate he appreciated his openness to a “flexible approach” to the levee issue. Conrad said mayors and county commissioners often comment on how building and tearing down clay dikes wastes taxpayers’ money and doesn’t provide for the most immediate defense of their cities and towns.

“Hopefully we can recognize that this is a threat that just doesn’t come and go, but it comes and stays, and we need to be prepared,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528