Ferragut: Fargo showed ’em how
By: James Ferragut, Fargo
Fargo showed ’em how
In 1997, Fargo and Grand Forks experienced what the scientists called “the 500-year flood,” which implied that the crest of the Red River at 37.5 feet over “flood stage” was statistically possible once every 500 years. Financial and personal losses in 1997 are well documented and remembered.
Last week, with little warning, it was as if Fargo had experienced a communal epiphany that shocked us into a complex and superbly executed plan of action to fight a flood of epic and unprecedented proportions. Late winter doldrums were shaken to the core with the realization that there was a possibility that we could lose our cities.
With calm and practiced urgency, information, strategies, contingencies and action plans were explained and clarified by experienced and compassionate leaders. Beloved Mayor Dennis Walaker confidently directed his “A” team of local, regional and national agencies, entities The New York Times called “an orchestrated ballet of civic involvement.”
Schools and colleges closed as thousands of students and an untold number of residents suspended education and work in an effort to fill 3.5 million sandbags and to start the difficult and tedious task of building dikes and levees. It rained, and rain turned into snow, which made the mission more difficult.
By midweek, crest projections exceeded our worst fears; our level of commitment and efforts to raise the dikes intensified proportionately.
We were amazing in our resolve. The story is the people of the Northern Plains. Geography, the physics of moving water and the magnitude of the flood were dwarfed by human stories. Our best characteristics, those of compassion, selflessness and sacrifice, were revealed on every block, on every street, in every neighborhood and in every community as we waged an exhausting but confident war against Mother Nature.
Fargo was thrust into the national spotlight, dominating television and radio news networks, major newspapers and online resources across the country.
To our surprise, embedded national reporters, seasoned news anchors and esteemed newspapers were compassionate and sympathetic. A CNN News reporter lost her composure momentarily as she interviewed a Fargo man whose home was caught between a levee and a contingency dike. “If I have to sacrifice my home to save the community, it’s a choice I’m willing to make.” The CNN reporter turned to her Washington anchor and said, “You just have to love these Midwesterners …” as she broke down.
We all have been affected by the events of these past two weeks, and probably in ways that have yet to reveal themselves. But the sheer will, determination, resolve, humor, commitment and sacrifice of the people of our community were witnessed by the nation. What they learned and what we have always known is that we are exceptional. We work harder, we care more, we do what’s necessary, we take care of each other, and we won’t and don’t back down. Keep throwing it at us … because we’ll take it. Like Walaker said, “If we go down, we’ll go down swinging.”
What the nation witnessed is in stark contrast to the greedy culture that put the economy on its back. Perhaps seeing Fargo do what we do best will ignite a national recalibration of priorities.
It’s taken 12 years, but maybe we won’t have to live with “ ‘Fargo’ the movie” stereotypes anymore. Maybe we’ve finally gotten the respect of the nation. We earned it.
Ferragut is a vice president for communications for a local bank and a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary page.