In Fargo, no panic this time as Red River rises


Dennis Walaker, the mayor of this flood-threatened city, closed a meeting Saturday by handing out celebratory cigars to officials -- to be smoked after the swollen Red River had crested.

The city had spent an anxious week stacking 1 million sandbags to hold back the river, which was expected to near last year’s record height of 40.8 feet.

But on Saturday, with flood threats looming throughout the Upper Midwest, all signs seemed to indicate that the city would avoid calamity. The Red River, which flows north through tabletop-flat corn and beet fields, is projected to reach a high mark of 37 feet Sunday -- 19 feet above flood stage.


Subfreezing temperatures are keeping snow and ice from tumbling into the waterway, and no heavy rain is expected in the coming days, said Patrick Slattery, a National Weather Service spokesman.

“In years past, this would have been a life-threatening event,” Walaker said.

The display of cautious confidence was a marked difference from last year, when North Dakota’s most populous city last battled its tempestuous waterway.

In 2009, as the Red River ballooned, the city panicked. Businesses closed, neighborhoods emptied out and even residents who lived far from a riverbank packed bags in anticipation of fleeing.

The river rose swiftly, and so-called overland flooding turned farms into lakes. But the city, tucked next to 14 miles of the Red River, dodged a catastrophe when nearly 50 miles of makeshift barriers held up.

After the flood danger receded, city officials marched forward with plans to better protect their 93,000 residents.

Aided by a half-cent sales tax for flood protection that voters embraced in June, Fargo added concrete flood walls and elevated a roadway. It bought more than 50 riverside homes, razed many of them and erected clay dikes. Officials might again ask voters to pass a similar tax hike.

This year, the city was also more organized when the earlier-than-expected flood threat arrived. Hundreds of thousands of sandbags had been filled, and officials had a plan to more efficiently distribute them.

“It’s a situation where you’re depending on the community to build its own defense,” said Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney.

The measures clearly relieved folks in Oak Grove, an aging riverfront neighborhood near Fargo’s red-brick downtown.

The city scooped up the three homes next to Klaus Meyers’ and replaced them with an earthen barrier. Though National Guard troops were patrolling it -- and the bloated gray river -- on Saturday afternoon, Meyers felt secure.

“Last year, the water was halfway up our deck. There was a big dike in the backyard. We had the sump pumps going” -- at least four of them, said Meyers, 40.

The neighborhood school partly flooded. He closed his bar, Dempsey’s, for a night.

This year, he threw a party.

Standing in his kitchen with friends, the TV blaring something other than flood updates, Meyers sighed at how the garage is saturated each spring. His father, John, would probably sell the modest home if the city came calling.

“People are fed up with all the flooding,” Meyers said. “They need to put a permanent levee in. We’re sick of this stuff every year.”

Fargo officials are trying.

After the Red River infamously swamped Grand Forks, N.D., in 1997, the city received an extensive flood-protection system. Fargo has been angling for a more than $1-billion water-diversion plan since last year’s near-disaster.

“The bells went off and we said, ‘We can’t kill ourselves like this every year,’ ” said City Administrator Patrick Zavoral.

The system would channel water away from Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., and rejoin the Red River farther north. But it’s somewhat controversial: Local and federal officials don’t agree on which state it should cut through, downstream towns are fretting over the plan’s effect on their water levels and, inevitably, two states and Washington will have to divvy up the bill.

Even on the most optimistic schedule, the project won’t be completed for about a decade. In the meantime, officials would like to leave up this year’s 16 miles of temporary barriers, replacing the sandbags with earthen levees.

“This is how,” Zavoral said, “we’re finally learning to live with the river.”