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Flooding in Fargo

March 28, 2009

Well kids, it’s been exhausting, but I think we might pull through.

As you would know if you read the “about” section of this blog, I live in Fargo, ND where I was born & bred. We are currently going through massive flooding with about a foot of snow on the ground. The waters will be higher than in 1997 and possibly higher than in 1897 (the highest recorded flooding of the Red River).

Last night my dad, sister, and I went to sandbag the top of the portable sand walls they’ve got up around our neighborhood (which is in the 500 year floodplain). We went out about 10 pm and didn’t stop until 12:30 or so. It was exhausting. Not the lifting of sandbags and placing them on the wall – no, that was the easy part. It was lifting the sandbags, throwing them on the ground, and trying to break up the frozen sand inside that was the hard part. Some of the sandbags were frozen solid, all the way through. They bounced when they hit the pavement. Not a good sign.

It was also freezing cold and snowing, but the cold is a relatively good thing: it slows down the melt and therefore slows down the rising of the river somewhat. Frozen sandbags? Not so much fun.

Luckily, though, they have not had to raise the crest prediction again. Instead of 43 feet, it is back down to 41.5-42 feet. 90% of the dikes in the F-M area have been built to 43 or 44 feet, so we should be just fine. What they’re worried about now is dikes breaking or leaking, so they’re building contigency dikes and shoring up the already built ones.

There are a few unfortunate things about the way the City handled/is handling this flood: 1) The far southern area of Fargo along the Red was not initially given enough attention and has suffered for it, 2) outlying townships and small communities outside of city limits were essentially left to fend for themselves, even when Fargo had a surplus of volunteers, and 3) info on how exactly to build effective dikes was not well-circulated (some people sandbagging last night thought we  actually had to build 44 foot high walls, not just to 44 surveyed feet above normal river levels, others built their dikes too tall and narrow to be much use).

However, there are a lot of things the City has done very well: 1) having an evacuation plan, 2) having the Code Red phone alert system in place, 3) building packed clay dikes, 4) getting those marvelous portable sand walls they use in Iraq, and 5) getting the word out on how to be rescued if necessary and including safety info (i.e. there will be no night rescues) out there.

I’ve been reading up on flood news with the national news outlets (The Boston Globe’s “The Big Picture” is a pretty good representation in photos) and have been amused and touched by the marveling over our volunteer efforts and neighbors and strangers coming together to help other people. Touched by the good sentiments and wishes, amused because behavior like that is pretty par-for-the-course in the Midwest, especially the RRV post-’97-flood.

I, my friends, and my little sister have gone and filled sandbags, both at Sandbag Central and in people’s driveways, and built dikes all over the city. All three colleges, NDSU, MSUM, and Concordia College, as well as pretty much all the local high schools (public and private) all the way down to the 8th grade have cancelled classes so that students could go and volunteer. Students from UND up in Grand Forks (protected this time around by a 57 foot dike built after ’97 by the Army Corps of Engineers with Federal disaster relief funds) and people from the Twin Cities and surrounding areas have come to help, whether with manual labor or handing out food and water to volunteers.

Right now I am very optimistic, particularly for my neighborhood. The water is already receding slightly in some flooded areas. The Oak Grove and Oxbow neighborhoods in Fargo, Oakport Township in Moorhead, Meritcare Hospitals, all of the nursing homes, MSUM, and Concordia College in Moorhead have all been evacuated, though only Oak Grove, Oxbow, and Oakport are currently flooded. Some of the more rural areas, especially along the Wild Rice river (a tributary of the Red) are also experiencing flooding and many people have had to be rescued by boat and helicopter.

Why so optimistic, you may ask? It sounds pretty horrible, right? It does, and in some places, it is pretty horrible, but the majority of the city is pretty protected, especially since they lowered the crest prediction by about a foot.

Maybe it’s just because the joined volunteer efforts, the selflessness, and the seemingly inexaustable energy of my friends and neighbors is heart-warming and gives me a whole heckuva lot of hope for saving the city.

I have read some comments in various places online asking (in an accusatory way) why we choose to stay in a place that we know is going to flood every year. One person even suggested forced removal of all people living along the Red. I might ask these people if they would do the same to those who live in hurricane-, earthquake-, mudslide-, volcanic eruption-, and tornado-prone areas.

The Red does flood every year, yes, because it flows north (kinda like the Nile), but the fact that it floods every year (generally to a far lesser degree than this year) is the reason why people live here. The Red River Valley is a rich alluvial floodplain (like the Nile), meaning that we’ve got really amazing soil that will grow just about anything that can stand our subzero winter and/or 80-90 degree summer temps. Plus, it’s home. Fargoans and North Dakotans joke that the cold keeps the riffraff out. Well, the flooding does too. Only the hardy and hard-working seem to be left. Which is why we have an entire city (well, three cities and lots of bedroom communities and rural areas) full of people willing to donate their time, energy, and labor to people they don’t even know (and some they do), working together toward a common goal in the face of disaster.

Fargo (the rest of North Dakota, too) gets a lot of crap from the rest of the nation for being full of dumb hicks, being an empty wasteland, being ridiculously cold, etc. It’s a reputation I think (although I’m admittedly biased) is far from deserved. I can think of few other places in the nation (most of them rural) that would react to disaster (albeit one with a relatively long advance notice) the way Fargo and other small Midwestern cities would. After all, do you really think the people of Santa Monica would help sandbag south central LA in the face of a huge flood (not that LA would flood, but I couldn’t think of an equivalent disaster to use)? I doubt it. I also doubt that those from San Diego would drive up to help. But that’s what’s going on in the Red River Valley and surrounding areas.

I have to say, I’m pretty damn proud of my hometown. And I’m just hoping we all get through this okay.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. e.m.smith permalink
    March 31, 2009 2:20 AM

    It’s a rural thing… I grew up in farm country and it’s what folks do. LA? Not so much. As someone in ‘the rest of the country’ the major reputation for Fargo is as a darned cold place! (Thanks to the nightly weather report) The rest of the characterization you give sounds more like the movie “Fargo” than what folks really think. (Though my wife hates cold and thinks anyone who lives where it’s below freezing is a bit nuts – me too since I like to ski 😉

    FWIW, if Fargo is in a flat enough area, having a bypass that is over flat farm land can really make floods much less of an issue:

    The area around Sacramento is incredibly flat (20 feet drop in about 200 miles!) so it was easy to dike off a bypass over farm land and essentially stop flooding (while making it safer for downstream folks too, by slowing the water flow and dampening the crest). Don’t know if it’s flat enough outside Fargo to have a channel lower than the city go around it … but it looks a lot like the Sacramento problem to me.

    The bypass was just bulldozing up a few miles of levies and putting a causeway over it for a road along with a weir or two for taking excess water out of the Sacramento River and sending it the long way round:

    Doesn’t do you much good right now, but maybe next time…

    It still is farmed and has cattle on it much of the year. Just the farm homes and equipment parking are on the outside of the bypass… Probably a lot cheaper and easier than moving the city (and certainly less stressful than sandbagging!)

    Best of luck.

  2. March 31, 2009 1:08 PM

    FWIW, in looking at a map of the Fargo / Moorhead area, it looks to me like you can divert the excess water past the city fairly readily by building a ‘bypass’ south of the towns.

    has a pointer to the map of the hydrology of the area.

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