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In Fargo, Losing By Winning On Flood Protection?

April 5th, 2009 · No Comments

There was an interesting article last week in the New York Times, ”Permanent Flood Solutions Just Out of Reach for Fargo,” by Kirk Johnson and Monica Davey. The piece uses Fargo (and neighboring Grand Forks) as a case study to illustrate a common dynamic when it comes to disasters — attention, action and funding are often in great supply after something catastrophic happens to an area but without such a calamity occurring there isn’t near the same initiative to prevent something major happening in the future. In other words, sometimes a community, like Fargo, can lose in the long-term by winning in the short-term. According to the article:

…the great lesson of floods past on the Red River, and especially from the devastating flood of 1997 in Grand Forks, an hour north of Fargo, is that big federal money for permanent flood abatement, and the local political will to support such disruptive projects, flows only where disaster goes. Grand Forks lost its fight with the river in 1997 – $1.5 billion in damages, hundreds of homes and businesses lost – but is now sitting tight and dry behind a $409 million floodwall and water-diversion system.

Fargo escaped the river’s wrath last time, and for most of the intervening 12 years was unable to muster local or federal support to get the sort of relief Grand Forks received. Now some fear that Fargo’s angst and struggle will be forgotten once more – until the next crisis. ”If we would have lost, we would have had the $800 million we need right away,” Tim Mahoney, the vice mayor of Fargo, said as he raced into a flood briefing on Sunday afternoon. “We would have had that done tomorrow. But this way, in two weeks, this will be off the national news and people will forget this happened.” Mr. Mahoney added: “In a way, it’s bad to win.”

The problems for Fargo in landing big federal financing – almost half of the money for Grand Forks’ project came from Washington – were compounded by local ambivalence too, city and state officials said. Plans had been in the works for better flood control measures, but they have been snagged and stalled, said Mayor Dennis Walaker, by residents who complained about “how the project might block their views, might change the way their backyards looked.”

“They don’t want a fence in their backyard,” Mr. Walaker said. Fargo was also perhaps partly lulled into a sense of security because it was credited in 1997 with saving itself through strenuous volunteer efforts and ad hoc floodwalls – measures that many worried would be insufficient this time. Standing on the edge of an ever-rising earthen dike on Friday as workers added still more sandbags to top it off, Mr. Walaker was left looking wistfully downriver. ”We’re jealous,” he said of Grand Forks, “absolutely jealous.”

For the last two and a half years, Mr. Walaker said, Fargo has been considering a new flood system, known as the Southside Project, that would offer permanent protection on the city’s south side at a cost of more than $150 million. And some officials have pressed for a separate project of $500 million or $600 million to help protect other portions of Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., just across the river. The Southside Project has made slow progress, the mayor said, but the more ambitious efforts could be a decade or more away. ”We haven’t had a big cheerleader pushing for this, at least so far,” Mr. Walaker said. 

The complications of flood defense go beyond just writing checks or building unsightly protection barriers. Grand Forks had to demolish or move more than 850 homes and businesses considered vulnerable to flooding. And Fargo, which has been growing rapidly in recent years, has seen much of the growth occur in unincorporated areas where zoning laws and city flood mitigation plans are harder to enforce. About 200,000 people live in the Fargo-Moorhead metropolitan area, about double the population of the Grand Forks area.

Land-use experts say that human nature and earth science simply move on different cycles – making it easy to think that a bullet dodged is a battle won. ”If you have a 100-year flood, people will say, ‘We had a 100-year flood in ‘97, so we shouldn’t have one for another 100 years,’” said Prof. Bernhardt Saini-Eidukat, the chairman of the department of geosciences at North Dakota State University in Fargo. But statistically that is wrong, Mr. Saini-Eidukat said. Fargo could have a 100-year flood every year for 20 years; only over the great stretch of geological time does it average out. ”Geologists think in geological time,” he said. “But most people don’t.”

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