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Published May 01 2013

Forum editorial: Let’s put sandbags behind us

This spring has provided yet another lesson in how unpredictable the spring flood can be in the Red River Valley – and how vulnerable Fargo in particular remains despite significant progress toward better flood control. The past few weeks have been a topsy-turvy time of fluctuating crest predictions, sandbag scrambles and emergency levee construction, all spring rituals performed with a weary familiarity.

Naysayers are quick to criticize the National Weather Service for early predictions that turned out to be too severe, thanks to a perfect melt and the fact we escaped heavy rains. That criticism is misplaced. As forecasters said many times, the unprecedented late thaw placed their prediction models in “uncharted territory,” and posed a real risk of a rapid thaw. Instead, the ground, parched from the recent drought, thawed enough to absorb much of the melt. As a result, the Red River crested far below levels rivaling the 2009 record, 40.84 feet.

Flood-fighting fatigue and the enormous cost of emergency measures – now almost an annual occurrence – underscore the need for Fargo to forge ahead as quickly as possible with its plan to protect the entire city with permanent levees and floodwalls up to 42.5 feet. The city’s early estimate of the cost of this spring’s temporary protections is $1.8 million. That cost is the latest installment in a tally that includes $8.4 million in 2009, $3.5 million in 2010 and $6.4 million in 2011 – a total of at least $20.1 million for just four major flood fights.

As officials repeatedly have said, Fargo must heed the advice of forecasters and prepare for a dire scenario. To do otherwise is to risk catastrophe; losing a flood fight would be measured in billions of dollars and would strike a devastating blow to the city and its residents that would take more than a decade to recover from. As we watch the fourth major flood in five years recede, we can’t deny that the area is more vulnerable to significant floods than was apparent a few years ago.

If that isn’t cause enough, the need for better permanent flood protection recently took on added urgency with word that federal officials could phase out flood insurance subsidies, which would sharply increase insurance costs for many property owners if certified levees aren’t built to a protection level of 39.5 feet – requiring 3 feet of freeboard, or 42.5 feet – considered the 100-year flood plain for flood insurance. The city recently estimated that $200 million of work remains to protect properties up to that level; that’s on top of $40 million already spent since 2009. The only way to ensure certified protection to a level of 42.5 feet – with 3 feet of freeboard – is to build the proposed $1.8 billion diversion.

It’s OK to breathe a sigh of relief that this spring’s flood wasn’t as bad as the early predictions. But we can’t become complacent and forget how critical it is to keep plowing ahead with better permanent protections. Let’s put those mad dashes to fill a million sandbags behind us, so we can simply be spectators when the inevitable severe floods come.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.