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Published March 31, 2009, 12:00 AM

PROFILE: Dennis Walaker

Flood fight a big job for big man
Dennis Walaker was driving south of Fargo on Thursday afternoon, sizing up the advance of floodwater toward his city, when the dreaded call came in from the National Weather Service.

By: Mila Koumpilova, INFORUM

Dennis Walaker was driving south of Fargo on Thursday afternoon, sizing up the advance of floodwater toward his city, when the dreaded call came in from the National Weather Service.

The Fargo mayor’s voice – the soft mutter that had soothed a stream of callers earlier that day – shot up. His weary face turned red.

“Forty-one to 43 feet?” he said, incredulous at a new, more pessimistic crest forecast.

“Come on guys, that can’t be happening to us. We can’t keep talking about these ranges because people are getting damn tired. What are we supposed to tell them?”

Floodwaters had claimed the road in 1997, when Walaker was Fargo’s operations director and frontline fighter against a flood that devastated Grand Forks but left Fargo mostly unscathed. Just before the call came, the sight of the road jutting above frozen fields reassured him he was poised to win this latest standoff with the Red River.

For Walaker, the outburst was unexpected. More often, the straight-shooting mayor projects calm as the face of Fargo’s flood fight – a very different role from his 1997 gig trolling the city’s lines of defense and making the calls.

Even as he sometimes chafes at this more hands-off role, he has thrown himself into a flood fight of even higher stakes. The record-high floodwaters threatened to submerge Fargo. And they could also wipe out his proud legacy as the 1997 flood response’s hero. The day before, he had moved boxes with 1997 articles and photos out of his south Fargo basement.

Standing back

Walaker had gotten bad news Wednesday, too, when the weather service revised the crest projection to just over 41 feet.

“Your mind doesn’t want to deal with it,” said Walaker, who was elected mayor in 2006 after 32 years of working for the city. “Your mind wants to tell you it’s impossible. But you don’t have any choice.”

Back in 1997, he would have taken a lonesome drive out through lakes country to clear his head. But back then, the city had a month, not days, to prepare. He had no time for such a luxury now.

Just before 11 the night before, he finally got away from the meetings and media interviews and drove south of town to Hickson, where he could “feel what’s going on.” But at Old Highway 81, surging floodwaters had blocked his way.

He was in what his wife, Mary, calls “flood mode,” an ultra-focused, determined state when Walaker, 68, can function on four or five hours of sleep.

“The flood is a driving force to him,” she said. “It’s something he feels very deeply about.”

Thursday started with a 5:30 a.m. interview with National Public Radio. At 7:30 he had a City Hall meeting with his flood fighting team. He sat a few feet off the long table – his 6-foot-5 frame hunched, head bowed and arms folded – letting others do the talking.

At a public meeting a half hour later, with six TV cameras trained on him, he said again the city was in “uncharted territory.”

Being a flood fight spokesperson rather than what former Fargo mayor Bruce Furness, Walaker’s 1997 boss, calls a “colonel in the cavalry” has been an adjustment for Walaker. He misses being out by the dikes, where, Furness says, Walaker spent 90 percent of his time in 1997, only popping in at City Hall to deliver updates in his mud-caked waders.

Mary Walaker, a retired teacher, recalls him sleeping at the city’s sandbagging headquarters for a couple of weeks back then.

“I enjoyed the other role much better because I got out there to see if things got done,” Walaker said. “It’s hard to remove yourself from trying to make every decision.”

After the news conference that morning, he headed to a meeting in Oak Grove, where in 1997 he watched crews pour 150 truckloads of earth to shore up a breach, only to see floodwater effortlessly wash away the soil. With some 50 homes lost that year out of 27,000 in the city, he had won the war, but he had lost the Oak Grove battle.

As he told anxious residents in a school auditorium Thursday of volunteer support from across the region, his voice trailed off, and he took a few moments to compose himself.

Keeping it real

Then it was off to a neighborhood meeting at Discovery Middle School. His dark red Motorola phone rang every few minutes, and, from the passenger seat, he ladled out optimism and caution in equal measure. Lance Gaebe, Gov. John Hoeven’s deputy chief of staff, had volunteered to drive him after Walaker had trouble finding his car keys that morning.

When they crossed an icy, swollen Drain 27 on 45th Street South, he muttered to himself “Oh God” a few times. But at the Discovery meeting, he summoned a confident tone, telling residents the city’s odds of winning were 3 or 4 to 1, “good at every horse parlor in the United States.” The night before, he told them if the city was successful in warding off the flood, he’d buy everyone beers.

Walaker’s off-hand manner in the spotlight – the fiddling with his glasses, the quips, the open “ho-ho-ho” laugh – is reassuringly unrehearsed. He’s the ultimate anti-politician who readily blamed a car accident that killed an 8-year-old girl in December on a rut the city failed to fix.

“He’s a soothing, calming voice for the community,” said City Commissioner Brad Wimmer. “He’s been a good, soft-spoken leader.”

But Walaker also worries about avoiding slipups – like only acknowledging North Dakota State University student volunteers in a speech earlier that week. He’s been known to stir from sleep just after 3 a.m. and scribble notes on his briefing opening remarks.

He dwells on criticism for days.

“It takes 10 attaboys for every nasty call I get,” he said. “They get to me.”

After more meetings and interviews that afternoon, Walaker finally got around to what he had been raring to do for days – get behind the wheel and inspect the dikes out south. He stopped to take a photo of sandbaggers by Drain 27.

He felt confident his city was on track to withstand the forecasted crest. He relaxed in his seat.

That’s when the National Weather Service call came.

He angrily told the caller that with daily revisions to the forecast, the weather service was seeping credibility. He said he didn’t buy the new crest prediction: “Covering your ass is not the figure we want right now.”

But as soon as he hung up, he hurried to collect himself. Now on Interstate 29, he gazed at a rippling expanse of water that lapped at the shoulder. He spotted ice rings around the trunks of submerged trees, barely shy of the flood water – a sign that the river here had crested.

By evening, a composed Walaker faced the TV cameras again and told his city’s residents Fargo could still make it. It would just take one final push.

Bleary-eyed volunteers and city workers obliged.

Ultimately, Walaker’s instinct appeared to be right. The river crested Saturday at 40.82 feet.

Levels continue to drop, but with more nasty weather on the horizon and the possibility of another crest in mid-April, the city isn’t breathing a sigh of relief just yet. And neither is Walaker.

Inforum searchword: flooding, Walaker

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529