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Published March 25 2010

Oakport in a storm: Township chairman Greg Anderson a multi-tasker

Greg Anderson swings his blue pickup into Jessie Swanson’s driveway along Wall Street, jumps out and flings open the tailgate.

Bales of unused sandbags sit at the end of the driveway. Anderson picks up a 70-pound bundle and heaves it into the back of his pickup like an empty Styrofoam cooler.

“Just a minute, let me help,” says Swanson, a widow, as she maneuvers through the slippery mud with her two dogs, Shadow and Apache, on leashes.

It’s too late. Anderson has already tossed the bales into his pickup and is ready to move on to Errand No. 256. He shares a hasty flood update with Swanson, then jumps back into his muddy pickup.

Cell phone clamped to one ear, he zips up and down the streets of Oakport Township. Duct tape, nylon rope, a camera, a coffee mug and a bottle of Tums – which he calls “Oakport mints” – slide around on his front dash as he speeds around corners.

“I was driving around this morning, sipping coffee and thinking, ‘what a great day,’ ” he says between phone calls. “And then the damned wheels fell off the bus. That’s life in Oakport.”

Anderson should know. In his eight years as Oakport chair, Anderson has battled four floods.

He lives in one of Fargo-Moorhead’s most flood-prone areas – a low-elevation neighborhood that experienced fire, flooding and mass evacuation in 2009’s historic flood.

But while the city of Fargo has a legion of paid staff to ward off the mighty Red River, Oakport has no full-time employees. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in this year to build a contingency dike in the township and the Minnesota National Guard patrolled dikes and pumps.

But most flood preparations are done by Anderson, four other township supervisors and Oakport’s residents.

“We’re the Bittners, we’re the Walakers, we’re the Redlingers,” Anderson says referencing other Fargo-Moorhead officials. “We do it all, because we’re just a little, tiny township.”

In fact, Anderson says, the Oakport area, which will be annexed into Moorhead in 2015, has probably outgrown its township status. Spread out over 29.2 square miles, it’s home to nearly 2,000 people.

Experts believe a Red River diversion project will drop water levels in Oakport by 5 or 4 feet. But until then, the township is on its own.

High-energy multi-tasker

A former Moorhead cop who now does computer work for the city of Fargo, Anderson may redefine the term “multi-tasking.”

Direct, funny and high-energy, he almost seems to thrive off the grueling pace of flood preparations. He gets up at 5 a.m. and works until 11 at night. In a two-hour span last week, he did the following:

- Sent out an e-mail update on flood preparations to a mailing list of 550, many of whom are Oakport residents.

- Spoke on his cell phone to at least 10 people on topics ranging from the need to get more barricades to the availability of jail inmates to help with sandbagging.

- Stopped and visited with several residents on river levels and flood preparations.

- Pried off a manhole cover to check a rising sewage level, talking on his phone all the while.

- Pointed out the last homeowner in a development who accepted a buyout and was now frantically packing.

- Marked wooden stakes to measure water levels in ditches, then hammered them into ground.

- Checked a lift station in someone’s backyard, then – in his haste to get somewhere else – accidentally backed over their basketball hoop (“Looks like I bought myself a basketball hoop,” he says, leaving his business card).

- Ran an errand at Moorhead’s wastewater plant;

- Joked with Red Cross workers that “I’m looking for the truck that has prime rib and baked potatoes.”

- Ran home to plug a shower drain in his home.

Sometimes stress is overwhelming, and Anderson admits he can be short with people. It’s hard not to when the river’s on the rise and he’s fielding a steady stream of calls from concerned citizens. “It just gets so hectic that I sometimes seem rude,” he says. “If what you need to tell me won’t fit on a bumper sticker, condense it.”

Anderson says he sometimes relies on his colleagues to smooth out the wide and rollicking wake he leaves behind him. Colleagues like Jeff Schaumann, a former Moorhead city planner and township supervisor.

Anderson believes Schaumann’s flair for organization and details complement his own take-charge style nicely. “We’re like Oscar and Felix,” Anderson says, referring to the mismatched roommates from “The Odd Couple.”

“I have to work on being respectful of people’s feelings while going 90 miles an hour,” Anderson says.

Which is not to say he’s uncaring. Quite the contrary. He points out a small house owned by an elderly couple. The woman told him her husband was a good sandbagger – except on the days he received chemotherapy treatments.

“Your heart just bleeds for them,” Anderson says.

‘I love this place’

Many Oakport residents know this about their township chair: He’ll work until he drops, and he’ll do anything to lend a hand.

“He’s got drive, he’s self-motivated and he’s always trying to help people,” says Greg Holland, who lives near Anderson.

Another resident, Mike Staber, convinced Anderson to become Oakport’s No. 1 flood fighter. “I said, go ahead, run for town board, it’ll be fun,” Staber says, smiling. “But he’s been good, real good. That’s why I told him to run.”

Says Swanson: “Can he be pushy? He can, but he’s very aware of that.”

When Swanson’s home was deluged by floodwaters last year, she says Anderson made sure it was sandbagged before the second crest.

“If I’m in trouble, he’d be here in a minute,” she says. “I can’t help but like the guy, and he’s been good for the township.”

For his part, Anderson knows life in Oakport comes with certain challenges. Still, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve gotten to know more about water than I ever wanted to know,” he says. “But I love this place. We can do this. These are great people.”

Why is Oakport soaked?

Why is the Oakport neighborhood north of Moorhead so flood-prone?

The answer, in a nutshell: A river ran through it. And nature being what it is, the river sometimes wants to revisit its former path.

Don Schwert, a geology professor at North Dakota State University, said the Oakport Coulee – which runs north and south through the township – is actually an abandoned channel of the Red River.

For no known reason, the river jumped out of its channel, probably a few hundred years ago, Schwert says. At about the location of Edgewood Golf Course in Fargo, the Red made a sharp southwestward bend past Trollwood Park before meandering north again.

It’s hard to say why the river changed course. Other abandoned channels of the Red were typically caused by landslides, ice jams and gradient adjustments. The Oakport detour could have been triggered by “some past moderate seismic activity amplified across the weak sediments underlying the Lake Agassiz plain,” Schwert wrote in an article for NDSU’s Red River flood home page.

“It left behind those lowlands that are prone to flooding,” Schwert says. “But it also left behind the riparian (riverbank) woodland.”

This scenic land attracted many people who wanted a change from the treeless Plains, Schwert says. “It’s a really attractive place to live until the river rises.”

– Tammy Swift

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525