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Erik Burgess, Published March 29 2014

Slim chance of flood a relief after recent years’ hectic prep

FARGO - With three major floods in the past five years, and the threat of one last year, beating back a rising Red River has nearly become a springtime tradition here.

So what happens in a year like this one when the river is, for once, tame?

“For me, it’s like I get to continue life as usual,” said Jason Kaseman, who moved from his riverside home south of Fargo late last year after years of waiting for a buyout from Cass County.

“It’s almost like a season,” he said. “Flood season’s over, except this year flood season never started for me. It’s just something I never had to worry about.”

Last year at this time, the metro was bracing for a flood of up to 42 feet, which would have surpassed the 40.84-foot record crest of 2009.

The chance of a severe flood this spring is so slight it’s given residents like Kaseman, as well as city and county officials, time to concentrate on things that have in recent years been pushed to the wayside during hectic flood fights.

Fargo and Cass County have major, multimillion-dollar capital improvement plans in place this year, which would have likely been delayed if the river was poised to be a significant threat.

Fargo spent about $2.9 million fighting the flood last spring, but it’s not so much the financial burden – disaster dollars are eventually refunded by the federal and state government – as it is the psychological effect a flood has on residents and workers, said Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral.

He recalled the overwhelming stress of the 2009 flood, which cost Fargo $8.3 million to fight and, after it was over, $4 million to clean up.

“We just wore the staff out, and people were not getting vacations. They had to give up vacation time,” Zavoral said. “The personal pressure on the staff and their families was quite evident. So, this spring will be a welcome relief.”

Breathing easy

Looking out the riverside window of her south of Fargo home, Jo Ann Miller laments the gray, dull colors of a cloudy late-March afternoon.

Then again, the view this year is better than looking at a rapidly rising river.

The Miller’s home, one of the last ones left on the Orchard Glen peninsula that juts out into the Red River, flooded in 2009 and again in 2011. A monstrous flood last year would have certainly put them in danger again.

Like many others on the river, they’re breathing easier this year.

The Millers were finally offered a buyout from Cass County last year, and they took it. They wanted to move out before spring – to avoid another flood season – but the bitterly cold winter stalled construction on their new home in north Moorhead.

When asked why they were moving, John Miller just laughed.

“Why do you think?” he asked.

“We would’ve stayed in the Orchard forever, had we not been faced with the flooding problems,” he said.

“We were just not interested in fighting that anymore,” Jo Ann Miller said.

Kaseman moved to a home in the Bakke addition near Oxbow.

“You think about it after a few floods, your friends and your co-workers – you don’t want to ask anybody for help anymore,” Kaseman said. “You just get so tired of asking for help. That’s the main thing.”

Even though last spring’s flood turned out to be more of a dud – eventually cresting at about 33 feet, manageable considering all the mitigation work completed here since 2009 – Kaseman said last year was at least psychologically worse than 2009.

He pointed blame at the National Weather Service, which predicted that Fargo had a good chance of seeing a flood like 2009, if not bigger.

“Their predictions were so terrible that they had everybody just scared to hell,” Kaseman said.

He doesn’t have to worry about that anymore.

Now in Bakke, he does have to deal with the ongoing debate about the proposed flood diversion project and the accompanying ring dike that would surround Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke.

While Kaseman called the scope of the $1.8 billion channel to divert floodwaters around Fargo-Moorhead “absurd,” he said he’d be OK living behind a ring dike. It’s a lot better than his previous situation, when piles of sandbags were his home’s main line of defense.

“Some people say, ‘Oh we’re going to be trapped inside a dike,’ ” Kaseman said. “Try being trapped inside your yard.”

Business as usual

When asked what they were doing now that they didn’t have to fight a flood this year, city and county officials laughed.

“We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said with a chuckle.

Preparing for and fighting a flood can tie the hands of engineering, highway and public works departments for months, and even something as little as fixing a nagging pothole is put on hold.

“All those routine things that they would normally do, they just all get pushed aside in years where it’s flooding,” said Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt.

It also means big construction projects are bid out later in the summer and sometimes can’t be finished before winter.

“What a lot of people maybe don’t realize is there’s generally two or three months of work after the flood crest just to clean up, repair, those sorts of things,” Zimmerman said.

With no flood to distract them this year, Fargo leaders have set forth on an aggressive $260 million capital improvement plan, said City Administrator Pat Zavoral. That’s $130 million more than last year.

“We can’t afford to lose any time in order to be able to complete all the projects we have this year,” said Nathan Boerboom, a Fargo division engineer.

Fargo’s capital improvement plan includes $100 million in flood mitigation projects, including buyouts, floodwalls, lift stations and levees, Boerboom said.

Cass County also has a big construction year ahead, with about $8.8 million in grading and overlay for several county highways, some of which haven’t been fixed since the late 1990s and have been damaged by constant truck traffic during floods.

There is also an estimated $5.7 million in bridge work planned across the county.

“We’ve got a bigger program probably than we’ve ever had in terms of the number of overlay projects being done to beef up the county highways, as well as the number of bridges and smaller structures being replaced,” Berndt said.

Two big projects this year in Moorhead include a “white topping,” or concrete overlay, of southeast Main Avenue and a joint project with Clay County to mill and overlay 11th Street North, from First Avenue to 18th Avenue.

Students in area public schools have also probably noticed there’s no big flood this year. Middle and high school students have been a crucial part of recent flood fights, making and laying sandbags, but it also means missing out on days of class.

During flood years, teachers and principals try to work within existing schedules to condense periods and not add any extra days to the end of the school year, said Broc Lietz, business manager for Fargo Public Schools. With no flood, it’s “education as usual” this year, he said.

“It’s certainly good for the community, good for Fargo Public Schools, good for anybody in that effort if we don’t have a flood event to try to combat,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518