Fargo defends decision to not evacuate residentsFargo city leaders on Sunday defended their decision not to evacuate the city amid the Red River flood threat, despite what Mayor Dennis Walaker called “an awful lot of pressure” from the federal government to do so.
By: Mike Nowatzki, INFORUM
Fargo city leaders on Sunday defended their decision not to evacuate the city amid the Red River flood threat, despite what Mayor Dennis Walaker called “an awful lot of pressure” from the federal government to do so.
The comments came as city officials cautioned that the first major dike breach of this flood – a leak under a steel cofferdam that flooded the basements of two buildings at Oak Grove Lutheran School – probably won’t be the last.
“We will have losses. We understand that,” Walaker said. “But we are not going to abandon our city. We’ve invested too much in this process to walk away from it.”
“Blood, sweat and tears,” added City Commissioner Tim Mahoney, the deputy mayor.
Walaker said leaders “had an awful lot of pressure to vacate the city, and we refuse to do that.”
When pressed, the mayor said the pressure came from the federal government, specifically the Department of Homeland Security, which has representatives in the area from Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Walaker said federal officials “asked us to consider evacuating the city,” but Fargo officials declined because they felt they had a better understanding of the city’s situation.
“You can’t have the same policy for every community in the nation,” he said.
Mahoney said he believes part of what had FEMA pushing for an evacuation was the tragic and rapid 1997 flood in Grand Forks and thoughts of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
“When FEMA came on the ground, they wanted to make sure that we knew the seriousness of the situation if (the Red River crest) went to 43 feet, and did we have an evacuation plan,” Mahoney said. “Unfortunately, they hadn’t met our team. Our team was well prepared.”
“If you have cooperation of all the parties, you will be successful, and that’s what we had,” he added.
FEMA spokesman Jerry DeFelice said Sunday he knew the evacuation issue had been raised a few days earlier, but he hadn’t heard anything about it since then. He said such a decision always resides with local officials, “but we have a responsibility to work closely with them.”
In FEMA’s post-Katrina state, “I think our bias, our general response is always going to be to respond with an abundance of caution,” DeFelice said.
He noted Fargo has already evacuated about 2,000 of its most vulnerable residents, including those in nursing homes, hospital patients and others with special needs.
FEMA knows Fargo’s history from the 1997 flood and has a “certain degree of confidence” in the city’s leadership, he said.
“We don’t deliver ultimatums,” he said. “We want to work with the local community.”
Ed Conley, a FEMA external affairs officer, said the agency gained perspective on how Fargo views residents’ participation as key in the flood fight. Evacuations are the toughest decisions in emergency management, and FEMA has a responsibility to ask questions and make its positions known, he said.
The FEMA officials said they’re cooperating closely with the city, Cass County and the state.
“Everyone has just a tremendous amount of respect for the local leadership and the job they’re doing,” Conley said, adding, “It’s just a good, strong partnership.”
Fargo city engineer says Hesco walls reinforced
Fargo City Engineer Mark Bittner said crews have reinforced the sand-filled Hesco walls being used as temporary levees throughout the city.
“We placed them on frozen ground, and there tends to be a lot of seepage underneath them,” he said. “They lose their ability to stand straight, so they tend to slide out on the bottom.”
Crews put clay or sand behind the walls to reduce seepage and reinforce walls, he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528