Letter from the Fargo flood This tragedy has given the word community a deeper meaning

Students are now back in school in Fargo, N.D., and the Red River has been falling since its record flood crest of 40.82 feet on March 28, but the National Weather Service says another crest this month could be higher. This account was written on March 30.

FARGO, N.D. — Living one block from the Red River here puts me on the front line of the flood.

As I write this report, snow keeps piling up. Although the river has gone down a few feet from the crest, warm weather could melt this snow and create an even higher crest. We have been without mail delivery, and garbage pickup has not taken place, so it is piling up with no end in sight. This crisis could go on for weeks. And dozens of smaller communities in the watershed are similarly affected.

Many whose homes were endangered tried to protect them with sandbag dikes and pumps. Some were saved, but hundreds were overwhelmed. The municipalities mobilized to protect public facilities. If anybody is worried about the younger generation, this crisis showed me there is great hope. Twenty thousand volunteers showed up from this city and from places hundreds of miles away to fill about 5 million sandbags, run pumps, serve food and do whatever else was required. Many put in long hours. Innumerable acts of kindness from people have spontaneously taken place. Thousands displaced from their homes have been taken in by strangers. Why does it take a disaster for people to rise to the occasion and to bring our their best?



Working day and night

Hundreds of ambulances and other emergency vehicles have come from a wide area to assist. Patients have been relocated out of hospitals. And about 3,000 National Guard women and men, working day and night, put up emergency dikes, guarded them around the clock for breaches, reinforced weak places and did traffic control. Seeing their trucks, bulldozers, helicopters and other equipment was heartwarming. They were doing what they were supposed to do! The law that created the Guard says they are to defend our country from disaster and attack and not to be deployed outside our borders. The Bush criminals somehow got around those rules.

I do a daily walk along the dike close to my home and have gotten to know some of the National Guards. They come from all over Minnesota and North and South Dakota. One young woman is a student of nursing; a young man, a first sergeant, is a journeyman electrician. Yesterday as I was chatting, up pulled a Red Cross van with volunteers from Sioux Falls, S.D. They gave me a turkey sandwich on bun, a chocolate bar, an orange and a hot cup of coffee.



Solutions

One local reverend who regularly communicates with God said that the almighty told him that the city was being punished because there is an abortion clinic here. Another preacher from Kansas says it’s because we have gay people. Maybe if we closed the clinic and drove the gays out we’d be spared? Such ideas carry little weight around here, fortunately.

Flood experts are having conferences and various long-range solutions are being put forth.

The Red River flows north, so it encounters ice jams which create barriers to free flow. North of North Dakota is Winnipeg, a city over a million in the Canadian province of Manitoba. That city suffered flood after flood and finally built a diversion to carry floodwaters around the city. Fargo and its sister city across the river, Moorhead, Minn., have this as one option. The cost would be about $1 billion. This is two days of military expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

FEMA and Homeland Security are involved. Some Washington bureaucrat gave the mayor of Fargo an order to evacuate the city. The mayor told them, “No way.” So we are still here.

There is the question that is sometimes asked, “Who the hell is in charge here?” Our city staff was here from the beginning, making decisions, spending money, etc. Then the National Guard arrived with their commander, who had the governor in tow: “OK, we’re here so we’ll take over.” Then came FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers. Even the Coast Guard is here with boats to rescue people trapped in flooded homes. The mayors and their staffs sometimes have to use force of personality or appropriate profanity to fight off the higher echelon folks.

Serious study of measures to prevent future floods is going on. Probably a combination of permanent dikes, removal of houses built in the wrong places, ban on future building in the flood plain, some diversion of water and maybe dams to retain water and release it after the danger of flooding is past. Surely there are other things that could be done.



A little history

I came here 36 years ago for a one-year visiting lectureship at the state university. But I got tenured and retired after teaching 18 years. At the time I moved here, the Red River, which divides Fargo from Moorhead, was a well-behaved waterway. It was so dry in August that one could walk across the riverbed without getting wet shoes. In the “Dirty Thirties,” the Great Plains were in a prolonged drought and called a “dustbowl.” Remember Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”?

About 20 years ago I bought an inexpensive house a block from the Red River. It flows in a flood plain which has been made into beautiful parks on both sides of the river. There are playgrounds, picnic facilities, baseball diamonds, campgrounds, bicycle, roller blade and walking paths and cross-country ski trails. This bit of paradise gets lots of use from the working people of the area.

For 10,000 years this territory was covered by geologic Lake Agassiz, a vast inland sea. When the lake drained it left a basin like a huge, shallow bathtub with its drain at the north end. The land was flat and very fertile, a place well suited to be a breadbasket for wheat and other small grains, sugar beets, beans and potatoes. It was so productive that the first 17 years of cropping needed no additional fertilizer.

Weather cycles go from dry to wet and back again. There have been about 10 floods of the Red since they started keeping records in 1890. But the frequency and severity are increasing. Global climate change has unbalanced the climate with colder winters, hotter summers, more severe floods and longer droughts.

A dozen years ago, I was at a picnic (political, of course) on the north side of town. There was a downpour and the street was inundated curb to curb. The garage where we ducked took on about 4 inches of water. I headed for home. The railroad underpass was flooded and cars were trapped there so I drove around on higher ground and found things floating in foot-deep water in my basement.

That’s where I have my office and library. Floor coverings were ruined, bookcases damaged, books, papers, files soaked. Now what? I bought a pump to remove the water, discarded the rugs and called FEMA. They sent a woman who photographed and assessed the damages. I was awarded a grant. When the check came I hurried to deposit in case it was rescinded. (Glad I don’t live in New Orleans.) Then I hired basement doctors who gave me an estimate — $8000, so I had to add some of my own money to the grant. They jack hammered the floor and installed a drain tile system with sump pump. This has kept things dry in the current flood. I have a die-hard battery if electricity fails, but if the pump breaks down I’m in trouble. If the city sewage pumps fail, some sewage could back up into the basement, but I have stopped up every drain, removed the downstairs stool and put a plug in. My suitcase is packed just in case!

Over the years, the city issued building permits for houses in low-lying areas along the river. Further development of the city and drainage by farmers created more runoff. This land is as flat as a billiard table. In the 75 miles north to Grand Forks, the river has 150 miles of oxbows. One of the few rivers that flow north, its waters empty into Hudson Bay. Unfortunately there is still no good handle on weather or flood forecasting, and the predictions of the height of the crest change from day to day and vary with different meteorologists.

If you think this place should never have been built in the first place, maybe you’re right, but we have 150,000 people here so we need to find ways to protect them.

We love Fargo and this tragedy has given the word community a deeper meaning.



Lew Lubka is a retired professor and co-hosts Peace Talk Radio on Saturday mornings on KNDS Radio, 96.3 FM, which you can livestream at www.kndsradio.com.