Moorhead fights notion that flood was only in FargoFargo is a large city in a small state. Moorhead is a small city in a large state. Those simple facts create a complex dynamic when it comes to matters of flooding.
By: Kelly Smith, INFORUM
Fargo is a large city in a small state.
Moorhead is a small city in a large state.
Those simple facts create a complex dynamic when it comes to matters of flooding.
So while the spotlight was largely on Fargo during the spring 2009 flood, it was Moorhead residents who arguably bore the brunt of the Red River’s wrath. “We’re the little minnow in a small ocean,” Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said. “There’s a perception it wasn’t as big of a deal (in Moorhead).”
Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland recalls it as being “frustrating” for residents.
“The big story was Fargo,” Voxland added. “The perception was we weren’t doing anything.”
But that wasn’t necessarily the case.
The city built nine miles of sandbag levees and eight miles of clay levees, including building contingency clay levees – something never done before.
It was an unprecedented challenge, even more so because while Fargo has built levees in the past, “this was a whole new ballgame for us,” Zimmerman said.
Moorhead, which is 4 feet higher in elevation than Fargo, wasn’t seriously threatened by the Red River in 1997.
“We weren’t even sure where our levees would go,” Zimmerman said. “Fargo is doing something they’ve done before. For us, it was a whole ramp up from scratch.”
In the end, the city dodged a bullet for the most part.
With the height of the land mass in Moorhead at 40.5 feet, had the Red River raised to the predicted 43-feet this spring, 2½ feet of water would’ve covered the lowest parts of the city.
Now, as talk shifts to permanent flood control, officials from Moorhead and Minnesota are making a concerted effort not to get left in the dust.
The flood fight
Like Fargo, Moorhead officials had to rush to prepare for the later-updated 43-foot crest at the height of the flood.
Unlike Fargo, they didn’t have a team in place right away. Moorhead officials quickly recruited a Minnesota team from the Corps of Engineers and help from the Minnesota National Guard.
“It just wasn’t enough time to prepare for that level,” Zimmerman said about the 43-foot crest prediction. “That took everybody by surprise. There would have been hundreds of properties flooded.”
At the time, the atmosphere in Moorhead was “frantic, but not panic,” Zimmerman said.
Still, the city instigated a voluntary evacuation that included 2,000 to 2,500 households. In comparison, Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral said about 200 homes were in their voluntary evacuation area.
Locals know the happy ending to the story. But while the river never rose to the highest estimated levels, it still pushed the city to new limits.
“We’ve been flat-out lucky,” Zimmerman said. “We were as maxed out as Fargo.”
A joint solution
As city officials now multitask between normal duties and plan short-term flood mitigation projects, they’ll also be focused on playing a role in the region’s permanent flood protection plans.
That’s where Fargo comes in.
Officials on both sides of the river know they need to collaborate on permanent flood protection projects, and have been discussing plans in joint meetings since the floodwaters started dropping.
“We don’t want to have to leave here,” said River Oaks Drive resident Kim Slette, who had to evacuate during the flood, adding both sides of the river banks need to be protected. “We need a joint solution.”
While the collaboration from the two cities’ officials isn’t unusual, collaboration at the state level in both Minnesota and North Dakota is.
“It was either a North Dakota thing or a Minnesota thing” in the past, Voxland said. “We’re sitting in a very different spot now.”
Minnesota officials, though, are still concerned about Minnesota cities being left behind in talks of a solution. So much so, they held a separate meeting in Washington, D.C., to regroup before a joint-meeting with North Dakota officials to discuss how “we present the mission,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty told them.
“The message is we’re happy to help North Dakota … but we need to understand the effect that project has on our side of the river,” Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said.
In a meeting later with North Dakota leaders, Voxland stressed unity with flood protection plans between the two states – regardless of the challenges of having a state boundary divide them.
“Nobody sees that line between Moorhead and Fargo but politicians and bureaucrats,” he said.
Still, that line is a challenge Moorhead officials will continue to have, proving they’re as much a part of the flood fight and solution as any city.
“It’s always Fargo. People ask, ‘Well, where’s Moorhead?’ ” said resident Mike Richards who lives near the evacuated neighborhoods in River Oakes. “(But) I don’t feel slighted. When it comes from the standpoint of attention, who cares? When it comes from the standpoint of money, we care. We better not get left behind.”
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Readers can reach Forum reporter
Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515