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Published April 01, 2009, 12:00 AM

Walaker says exodus would have sunk city

‘Front line of defense’ was key in fighting off flood, mayor says
Had Fargo launched a citywide evacuation as urged by state and federal officials late last week, the effects on the city could have been devastating, said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker.

By: Dave Olson, INFORUM

Had Fargo launched a citywide evacuation as urged by state and federal officials late last week, the effects on the city could have been devastating, said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker.

“If we’d have walked away at that time, I’m sure the majority of the city would have been flooded,” Walaker said. “The people are our front line of defense.”

The closed-door meeting to talk about whether to do a large-scale evacuation took place at the height of Fargo’s flood battle late last week. The discussion became heated at times, with Fargo leaders striving to convince state and federal authorities the city’s defenses were sound, said Vice Mayor Tim Mahoney.

“They came in as a team,” said Walaker, referring to the meeting, which included Gov. John Hoeven and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“First of all, you have to understand their concerns: They don’t want anything like (Hurricane) Katrina, or some place like that,” Walaker said.

“But they didn’t fully understand how much preparation, how much work we’d already gone into to try to save our community,” he added.

Mahoney said the governor and FEMA wanted the city to strongly consider a large evacuation.

Don Canton, a spokesman for Hoeven, said state and federal officials met with Fargo leaders to evaluate the “advisability” of a citywide evacuation.

“I’m sure there was a discussion of mandatory evacuation, but that’s not what was agreed on and executed,” Canton said.

He said the agreement reached, that vulnerable adults would leave and voluntary evacuations would be done in some areas, “obviously worked.”

Mahoney said Fargo already was in the process of evacuating vulnerable individuals before the meeting with state and federal officials.

He said that move apparently prompted someone to “pull the trigger” on a larger-scale evacuation, because parts of interstates 29 and 94 were closed Friday, the day before the Red River crested in Fargo at 40.82 feet.

Mahoney said he called the governor’s office about the highway closings and was told the matter would be fixed.

And it was, said Lance Gaebe, the governor’s deputy chief of staff.

Gaebe said the interstate shutdown was the result of a glitch in communication between emergency management officials and the department of transportation.

“They basically said to prepare to put out an announcement in case we need to do this, and it got released as if it were happening,” Gaebe said.

“Almost as quickly as that, the retraction went out,” he added.

Mahoney said he considered the matter settled and turned his attention back to fighting the flood.

Walaker said the meeting lasted about 45 minutes and all sides voiced their opinions.

After the talks were over, Walaker was told the decision was his to make.

“I said, ‘OK, I’ve made my decision: We will continue to protect our city,’ ” Walaker said.

Walaker said he doesn’t want to “create any adversarial positions between us and the people who support us,” he said.

But, he added, he wasn’t going to give up on his city, either.

“As long as we were continuing to hold our own, I wasn’t willing to abandon the people,” Walaker said.

The decision to limit evacuations turned out to be a good one, according to Walaker.

“People said they wouldn’t have gone anyway,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

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