Image: Sandbagging around home
Eric Miller  /  Reuters
Thousands of volunteers along the Red River have been sandbagging around homes like this one in Fargo, N.D., on Thursday.
updated 3/27/2009 2:05:38 PM ET 2009-03-27T18:05:38

Having avoided disaster during the flood of 1997, Fargo may be a victim of its own success.

After Fargo officials undertook extra flood precautions and avoided disaster, the Army Corps of Engineers turned its attention to Grand Forks, which was not so lucky, building a comprehensive $400 million flood protection system for the city.

Today, as floodwaters threaten to drown Fargo, Grand Forks is relatively calm and not worried that it will see the devastation it endured 12 years ago. Its protection includes some 30 miles of levees, two miles of flood walls, 22 pump stations and 10 miles of diversion channels.

"In 1997 we won, we beat the flood, in every community but Grand Forks," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "So of course there was a tremendous focus on building longer-term defenses for the city. Fargo won the flood fight, so naturally there was less pressure to deal with a more far reaching, long-term solution."

With his city facing a potential disaster, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker says, "I hope that isn't what it takes to get somebody to agree that for us that's what's needed."

Some members of the state's congressional delegation now believe that a more holistic approach to flood protection is needed in the notoriously flood-prone Red River Valley.

"These are inevitable threats to North Dakota's most significant, most populous cities, and proper protections need to be built," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.

Pomeroy, Conrad and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., met with President Barack Obama on Wednesday to talk about the flooding.

Two lawmakers from neighboring Minnesota, Rep. Collin Peterson and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, also are pushing the White House for disaster relief.

No 'big push' in Fargo
Aaron Snyder, the Army Corps of Engineers' project manager for the Red River basin, said there is no technical reason for the difference in protection. He attributed it to impetus at the local level and in Congress.

Fargo's metropolitan area has recently begun the process of a comprehensive review by the Corps, but it did not feel the same pressure after 1997.

"What you see a lot of times is there's much more support following a catastrophe," Snyder said. "You see a big push. Since Fargo's been very successful in the past, there hasn't been as big of a push."

Fargo has been asking for state and federal help for a $161 million dike project. And Snyder said Fargo had made an effort to improve its flood protections since 1997, but he added: "It's just not of the magnitude of what was done in Grand Forks."

Fargo property owners and government officials alike have applied lessons from past floods to fighting this one — whether it's smarter ways to hold back water, or just taking better care of your body after a long day hoisting heavy sandbags.

City administrator Pat Zavoral said the city would be in even worse shape if not for post-1997 improvements. "A lot of the people running things worked here then, and we have pretty good institutional knowledge of fighting floods," said Zavoral, who was the city's public works director in 1997.

Fighting the freeze
One example: In 1997, a water pump next to the levee that protects Fargo's Shriners Center from the river froze up and failed. Employees noticed the rising water just inches before it spilled into the basement and scrambled to pump it out.

"Not this time," said Ken Maxson, the chapter's recorder, minutes after he rigged up a crude incubator for keeping the water in the pump above 32 degrees: dropping a light bulb inside and covering it with a tarp. "It might not seem like a huge thing, but this could be the difference between dry and wet for our building."

Zavoral cited other changes:

  • Most dikes were raised. In 1997, dikes protected the city from the river up to 31 feet above flood stage, where now they go up to 38 feet above flood stage.
  • The city doubled from one to two the number of sites where sandbags are assembled and also set up mini-sandbag stations at strategic spots in some neighborhoods.
  • Fargo removed some houses from harm's way altogether, purchasing and moving about 100 out of the flood plain since 1997.
  • Technological gains have also focused protection efforts, with geographic computer mapping of the extremely flat city indicating what Zavoral called "subtle nuances in elevation" that help with decisions about where to strategically place temporary dikes.

Tim Mahoney, a Fargo city commissioner and a doctor, added that Fargo is being more diligent this time around about making sure no city workers or volunteers work for too long without a break.

"If you're too tired, you're useless," he said. To that end, the North Dakota National Guard has deployed about three times as many National Guard soldiers to work on sandbag lines than compared to a dozen years ago.

Fighting geography
Flooding is a constant threat for every city in the Red River Valley, where geography works against the population base. The river flows south to north along the flat North Dakota countryside.

"Most Americans don't understand it's as flat as a table top. It's not a channel of water. When it floods it just spreads all over," said Dorgan. "It's unlike most flooding any American would ever see."

Conrad said Fargo's newest struggles have convinced him that a broader view might be appropriate.

"As we go through this incident and review what's occurred, it may well be that a determination will be made to have a much more extensive flood defense system than we previously thought was necessary," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Fighting floodwaters in Fargo

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  1. This satellite image released Tuesday shows the flooded Red River on Sunday as it divides North Dakota and Minnesota in the Fargo area. (Digitalglobe via Getty Images / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Snow falls in downtown Fargo on Monday. The city's heavy equipment was pulled away from the ongoing levee construction to deal with the snowstorm. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The driver of this truck braved floodwaters and ice slabs on Monday driving along Interstate 29, north of Grand Forks, N.D. (Eric Hylden / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. National Guard soldiers prepare to launch large sheets of plastic with sandbag weights over the side of an earthen dike on the southside of Fargo Monday. Engineers hoped the plastic barrier will help prevent erosion as snow followed by high winds and blizzard conditions entered the region. (Allen Fredrickson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Red River had swamped these homes Monday in Moorhead, Minn. (Elaine Thompson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. An ice formation on a tree indicates the height of floodwaters, after the Red River receded in Oxbow, south of Fargo, on Sunday. (Eric Miller / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. This sign is among the ways residents of Fargo, N.D., are thanking the thousands of volunteer sandbaggers. (Daniel Barry / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A bitter cold did not stop folks in Fargo from attending a prayer service Sunday. (Daniel Barry / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Randy Richards uses a broom handle Sunday to measure the depth of the receding Red River floodwater that surrounds his brother's home in Fargo. (Eric Miller / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The flood threat hadn't killed all signs of humor -- this one was spotted in the front window of a home in rural Fargo Sunday. (Carson Walker / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Volunteers work to fill sandbags Sunday in Fargo. The effort has been going on for more than a week in the city and other areas along the Red River. (Daniel Barry / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Carl Sinner shows off his "catch," a walleye pillow, as he and friends Dennis McIntyre, left, and Dick Roswick take a break Sunday from days of fighting Red River floodwaters to save Roswick's home in Fargo. (Eric Miller / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. People work to funnel floodwater out of a building at the Oak Grove Lutheran school on Sunday in Fargo. The bloated Red River briefly breached a dike early Sunday, pouring water into the school campus. Crews managed to largely contain the flooding, preventing more widespread damage in nearby areas. (Elaine Thompson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Bob Smith, left, and Jared Bakko head back to their cars after Smith checked on his house and Bakko took supplies to his grandmother as the Red River flood waters began to recede just south of Moorhead, Minn., on Saturday. (Craig Lassig / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. David Marshall lowers a current meter into the swollen Red River from a closed bridge between Moorhead, Minn.,and Fargo, N.D., on Saturday. (Jim Mone / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A road is covered by floodwaters on Saturday. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Homes are surrounded by floating ice and floodwater as the Red River continues to rise on Saturday in Fargo, N.D. The normal banks of the river are defined by the twisting tree line and the ice toward the bottom of the picture is floodwater. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Farrell Turner carries Nathaniel Jones while Amanda Monson, Ashley Jones and Cody Turner unload some belongings as they evacuate their home because of the Red River flood in Moorhead, Minn., on Friday. (Craig Lassig / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Lowell Bottrell paddles his canoe through icy floodwater up to a neighbor's home as the Red River continues to rise on Friday. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Evelyn Radke is comforted by Anna Charles, right and Ves Marinov as she is evacuated with the rest of the residents at the Elim Rehab & Care Center on Thursday in Fargo. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Randy Haas steps off a Coast Guard air boat after being rescued from his flooded home Thursday in Oxbow, N.D. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Vic Klosterman walks through flooding from the Red River in front of his home south of Fargo on Thursday. (Eric Miller / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Volunteers ride in the scoop of a front end loading tractor after sandbagging around a home threatened by flood waters from the Red River in Fargo on Thrusday. (Eric Miller / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Volunteers hitch a ride in a dump truck to help residents sandbag their homes as water from the Red River continues to rise on Wednesday. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Emergency workers use an air boat to rescue Destiny Dolan, 15, front left, and friend Kayla Weston, 15, on Wednesday. Dolan said the experience of being trapped was terrifying. (Nate Jenkins / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Michael Stensgard uses one of his family's boats to get back to their home from the Red River on Wednesday, near Fargo. (Richard Tsong-taatarii / The Star Tribune) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. One of Doug Stensguard's dogs, Annie, looks out over what used to be a 5-acre yard and an outbuilding that was flooded by the rising Red River on Tuesday in Fargo. Stensguard built an earthen and sandbag dike around his home in the hope of holding back the rising floodwater from the Red River. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Zach Boor, 12, whose face is splattered with mud, passes a sandbag down the line as he joined college students to help build a dike along the north side of Rose Coulee on Monday in Fargo. Boor was excused from classes at Discovery Middle School so he could join thousands of other volunteers to build dikes to protect the city from the flooding Red River. (Dave Wallis / The Forum via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. North Dakota Army National Guard troops haul away empty palettes from River Shore Drive on Monday. (Dave Arntson / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Volunteers help place sandbags outside the home of Jeremy Kuipers in Moorhead, Minn., on Tuesday. (Richard Tsong-taatarii / The Minneapolis Star Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. As the Red River rises in the background, Gloria Brown hauls a wagon load of sandbags to pile around her neighbor's home Tuesday in Fargo. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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