Mayor optimistic about flood fightDennis Walaker exudes his brand of weary optimism as he drives through sections of south Fargo that resemble war zones in the city’s long battle with the Red River.
By: Patrick Springer, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead
Dennis Walaker exudes his brand of weary optimism as he drives through sections of south Fargo that resemble war zones in the city’s long battle with the Red River.
The mayor has just finished a Saturday morning briefing in which he urged residents to go shopping and go to church – to indulge in a therapeutic dose of normalcy while Fargo-Moorhead enjoys a lull before a second river crest creeps back up to threatening levels.
He steers his GMC Acadia past earthen dikes lining South University Drive, the southern frontier in the city’s defenses against the Red and its troublesome tributary, the Wild Rice River.
This is a flood-fighting ritual for Walaker, the reconnaissance drive to parts south and west of town, each mile taking him farther into the future that awaits the city as floodwaters flow downstream to a metro area under siege.
“I can’t sit and look at statistics from other people without verifying what’s going on,” he says.
Once again the river-crest intelligence reports from the National Weather Service are daunting and frustratingly broad: a 90 percent chance the Red will surge to 40.4 feet, a 75 percent chance of reaching or exceeding 41 feet, a 25 percent chance of reaching 42.8 feet.
Those numbers don’t fluster Walaker, whose own predictions hover below 39 feet.
The sky is a dreary gun-metal gray, and the eye lands on nothing but mud, wet snow and shallow pools of water – all of it signifying incremental progress to Walaker, who sees sodden soil in many areas where he once saw sheets of water.
“We’ve accomplished so much in eight days,” he says. By his tally, the city is protected by 80 miles of levees, sandbag walls and secondary dikes – maybe 300,000 cubic yards of earth – forming a protective barrier to a river level of 43 feet.
“If we have to go up another foot,” Walaker says, “we will.”
As he drives south on 25th Street South, past the Rose Creek neighborhood, Walaker is encouraged by the dropping level of Rose Coulee.
“It’s a wonderful sign,” he says as his GMC climbs an earthen flood barrier crossing the street. “Absolutely wonderful.”
South of Fargo along U.S. Highway 81, in the Briarwood neighborhood and points south, the soggy fields provide another sign of the receding Wild Rice River.
“These are all good signs,” the mayor says. “There was water here.”
The Red River has retreated a good six feet from its initial crest of 40.82 feet, and is predicted to drop to 30 feet in a week.
“As the river goes down, things look better,” Walaker says. “We have more storage. The only thing that can change it is more precipitation.”
Heavy rains hitting already swollen rivers, of course, loom as the worst-case scenario, the eventuality presumably built into the higher second-crest forecasts.
In fact, as the mayor continues his flood reconnoiter, angling further south and west to have a peek at the Sheyenne River, a snowstorm raged 300 miles to the south – safely, for a change, outside the Red River basin.
Before heading west to check the Sheyenne, Walaker drives to the Oxbow-Hickson community, where a crew takes Red River readings from a floating instrument. Just the day before, the technician says, he was standing in water on the bridge, now dry.
The Sheyenne, however, proves a more stubborn enemy. As Walaker drives west on Highway 46, he finds cornfields surrounded by a shallow lake.
“This stuff here is coming from the Sheyenne River,” he says.
At Kindred, he sees the petulant Sheyenne, still largely crusted with ice, but beginning to buckle.
As the gradual thaw continues, Walaker predicts the Sheyenne will be mostly clear of ice by Friday. That will allow the tributary to flow more efficiently, and help it to return to its banks.
Still, Walaker’s seasoned eyes find more signs for a manageable second crest. The significant snow remaining from last week’s storm, in his view, should not pose a problem if allowed to melt without additional moisture.
“There’s nothing that’s going to change my mind without significant precipitation,” he says as he drives north on County Road 17, past Horace.
“I’m not concerned about the melt,” he adds. “I’m concerned about the precipitation that would make the melt.”
Now back inside the city limits, in the southwest corner, he inspects Drain 27 along 52nd Avenue South. He sees water rushing beneath a bridge, through an eroded field – probably overflow from the Wild Rice.
Still, Walaker points to a snowline suggesting the water in the drain has dropped two feet from its peak, and to emergency dikes raising the channel four or five feet on each side. One of his daughters lives in nearby Woodhaven.
As he returns to City Hall, Walaker checks drains serving the municipal storm sewer system. He’s pleased to find all are dry or running at low levels, a testament, he says, to upgrades since the 1997 flood.
Before concluding his 58-mile tour, Walaker stops at the Dairy Queen on North University Drive for lunch: a barbecue sandwich with pickles and a small cherry shake.
“Are you taking a bit of a break today?” the window clerk asks as she takes his order. The mayor smiles back as he drives off.
“I’ll wash this vehicle when Mahoney takes his vest off,” he says, referring to Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney’s trademark yellow vest. “When it’s under 31 feet and it’s going to stay under 31 feet.”
Nobody can say how many cherry shakes from now that will be.