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Published April 11, 2009, 12:00 AM

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland weathers the flood amid criticism, emotion

Paul Hilleren talked about losing his home near Woodlawn Park in south Moorhead to the flood. Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland listened. And he got an earful.

By: Dave Olson, INFORUM

Paul Hilleren talked about losing his home near Woodlawn Park in south Moorhead to the flood.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland listened.

And he got an earful.

Hilleren explained how he should have trusted his gut and stayed with his home. When he left, the pumps were still staying ahead of water seeping through the dike around his home on Elm Street. But then, the National Guard showed up and gave him and his neighbors a talking to.

“Everything was the worst-case scenario. They scared the crap out of us.”

So Hilleren left.

When he called the number evacuees were supposed to call, his power was shut off.

There went the pumps.

And there went his basement.

Hilleren’s anger wasn’t entirely directed at Voxland that day, but toward the city.

“I still like my mayor. I truly think he’s got a lot on his plate. But I’ve got a lot on my plate, too. And I’m pissed,” said Hilleren.

Similar sentiments were expressed at a recent City Council meeting, when a number of people told officials they felt the city ignored calls for help.

Council members, including Voxland, didn’t challenge the comments.

Interviewed days later, Voxland said people answering phones at City Hall did a good job of coordinating calls with engineering staff in the field.

But in the heat of battle, wires can get crossed.

“There obviously is some confusion that happened,” Voxland said. “Sometimes clarity, on both sides, is a little muddled.”

Out of the spotlight

Voxland, who was elected mayor in 2001 and won re-election four years later, said he’s aware some Moorhead residents feel Fargo got more media attention during the flood fight, and he said at times that probably was the case.

In the buildup to the crest, Fargo and Cass County officials held televised meetings at 8 a.m. every day, which were often attended by members of the national and international media.

“We were doing a 4 o’clock press conference those first several days,” said Voxland.

“We figured out that was a poor time to do it, because electronic media needed to be on the air at 5 o’clock and didn’t have time to do a story. We lost because of that.”

While Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker has become somewhat of a national celebrity for his no-nonsense approach to flood fighting, the 58-year-old Voxland has kept a lower profile.

Voxland said he doesn’t see himself as Moorhead’s champion flood fighter, stating that distinction belongs to City Engineer Bob Zimmerman.

“He (Zimmerman) has probably been the general,” said Voxland, adding that the city engineer does a good job of quickly forming new defenses in the face of an ever-changing enemy.

But Bill Schwandt, general manager of Moorhead Public Service, said Voxland spent plenty of time on the front lines.

“At the peak of the intensity, in the basement of the emergency operations center when we’d go from seven in the morning to one in the morning, he (Voxland) was there at all those important meetings,” said Schwandt.

“He listens a lot and then, when it’s time for something to be said, he’s prepared to say it,” Schwandt said of Voxland.

But words have a way of sometimes coming back to haunt.

During his most recent state of the city address in early March, Voxland joked that Moorhead’s flood plan was to use Fargo as a retention pond. The remark drew laughs from the audience.

Voxland said the comment was a friendly jab at Walaker and he said it was made at a time when 37 feet was considered major flooding.

“At that moment, with that group, it was a good thing to say,” said Voxland. “With the flood at this level, it doesn’t have a ring of humor with it. At 41 feet, we’re all a retention pond.”

Unprecedented stress

Between his duties as mayor and working at his family’s electrical contracting business, Voxland said he never hit a wall during the flood fight.

But he said he was discouraged at times by ever-rising crest predictions. He cited a news conference where the city announced it was prepared for a 42-foot crest.

As the briefing wrapped up, a whisper began that the National Weather Service had changed its forecast to include the possibility of a 43-foot crest.

“All of a sudden everybody’s phone rang at the same time. It was like, ah, rats. It’s true,’’ said Voxland.

“I went home that night and I felt, ‘How can we beat this flood, when every day they raise the crest a foot?’

“What got me out of it was the next day. I got into a line with some people and sandbagged for a couple of hours,” recalled Voxland, who said his fellow sandbaggers included students and residents.

All of them, he said, had the attitude of: “They raised it a foot. Let’s get this thing done.’ It was the shot in the arm I needed.”

Another tough time came last weekend, when Voxland said he was able to relax a little and attend church.

“I didn’t want to go back to the tension,” he said.

“But you got to,” he added. “You know it’s coming. That second crest.”

Another emotional moment for Voxland came during a chapel service at Concordia College following the first crest.

The mayor choked up a bit when students applauded him as he stepped to the altar to address the student body.

“I’m the one who’s supposed to applaud all of you,” said Voxland. “The words are so inadequate for what you all did, but thank you, thank you very much.”

Lessons learned

Early assessments indicate at least 10 homes in Moorhead suffered major flood damage as the Red River rose to a record high of 40.82 feet March 28.

The city is still tallying numbers, but Voxland said he believes damage from the March crest is less than what the city suffered in 1997.

He said after the flood 12 years ago, the city bought out about 16 flood-prone homes.

And, he said, when the city could afford it, gates were placed on storm sewer outlets, a move he said took the edge off street flooding this spring.

“Back in ’97, once the river got to a certain level, we started seeing manhole covers lifting off because of pressure,” said Voxland, adding that the solution 12 years ago was to park garbage trucks on the manhole covers.

And while the city expected some street flooding this time around, the latest flood brought surprises of its own.

Residents complained at the recent City Council meeting that storm sewer flooding was a serious problem in south Moorhead neighborhoods.

Voxland said the city learned from the experience.

To deal with potential street flooding from a second crest anticipated late next week, the city is plugging more storm sewer outlets at the river. It has also brought in 40 additional pumps to make sure any backup or rainwater can be dealt with.

In addition, the city is building contingency dikes, something Voxland said would have been done prior to the first crest if there had been more time.

“If we’d have had a three-week warning to 40 feet, some of these contingency dikes we could have done the first time,” Voxland said. “We had six days (warning) the first time.”

Voxland spoke Friday to a group of people in south Moorhead who questioned the need for contingency dikes when they weren’t required for the first crest.

The mayor received a round of applause for his answer.

“I hope not a drop of water hits ‘em and I get criticized all summer for making the town dirty,” he said.

“We don’t know what this river is going to do and how it is going to react, but we do have ways to protect our citizens, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

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