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Published June 21, 2009, 12:00 AM

Cities overcame divisions for flood protection

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – This city’s $409 million permanent flood protection is a striking success story that sprang out of a tangle of animosity, suspicion and recriminations.

By: Mila Koumpilova, INFORUM

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – This city’s $409 million permanent flood protection is a striking success story that sprang out of a tangle of animosity, suspicion and recriminations.

The massive levees and floodwalls shielding Grand Forks and its smaller twin across the Red River, East Grand Forks, rose in record time after the devastating 1997 flood. They sealed the community’s cachet as a poster child of flood recovery. This spring, the cities didn’t deploy a single sandbag.

But the project’s planning ran into the snags that often plague attempts by local, state and federal stakeholders to align their priorities. There were security officers posted at Grand Forks city offices, private firms checking Corps of Engineers math and near-paralyzing standoffs at every turn.

“The battle of the flood becomes the easiest part,” said Lynn Stauss, then and now the East Grand Forks mayor. “Where the problems usually start is after the flood.”

But crucially, the project also involved compromise and collaboration when it counted. Added Stauss: “You’re going to have trouble if you don’t work together.”

Divided communities

The April 1997 flood effortlessly overpowered the cities’ defenses, including 3.5 million sandbags placed in its way. The floodwaters led to the evacuation of 60,000 residents and, along with a fire that broke out in downtown Grand Forks, inflicted $2 billion in damage.

Within weeks, the communities were talking permanent fixes. Two approaches quickly pit supporters against each other: a levee system and a diversion redirecting the Red around the cities.

In fact, when the flood hit, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was three years into a study of a permanent protection for Grand Forks. The study helped the cities skip years of red tape and data gathering; it had also presaged the fault lines the project would pry open in 1997.

The study, says Lisa Hedin, then a corps project manager, had envisioned a massive levee system to protect the city; some residents who had seen the results had balked at the large portions of downtown the levees would claim.

After the flood, the corps – and eventually the Grand Forks engineering department – stood behind the levee system. At about

$350 million, they said, it was roughly half the cost of a diversion and would take half the time to construct. Given the stark price tag difference, the federal government might not spring for a diversion.

But city officials and residents countered that the diversion, a more reliable form of defense, would spare hundreds of homes, many of them unscathed by the flood.

“Everybody was angry, and nobody was listening, and nobody thought they were being listened to,” said Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown, back then a homeowner who “kept the flood out of my house, but couldn’t keep the city out.”

He adds: “It was like kids arguing all the time.”

Scores of angry riverfront residents, eager to know whether they should rebuild, formed snaking public comment lines at City Council meetings. The city posted several security guards in its downtown offices. Residents stopped Hedin on her runs or flagged her over in restaurants to reason with her.

The community, which had rallied to ward off surging floodwaters, was split: A survey showed 37 percent preferred the levee option, and 36 percent supported a diversion.

“At that point, you just worked on adrenaline,” then-Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens said. “I paid no attention to the stress of it, or I would have caved in.”

The City Council’s Flood Protection Committee brought in an engineer who had worked on the Winnipeg diversion in the 1960s to check the corps’ math. Committee member Hal Gershman, today the council president, says that engineer estimated a much lower diversion price.

Polk County officials opposed an east-side diversion tearing through fertile farmland. The corps eventually deemed a Minnesota diversion unfeasible. North Dakota farmers then joined the opposition to a diversion project.

In February 1998, faced with a diversion price tag that had by then swelled to $932 million, the Grand Forks City Council voted to scrap that plan.

Some, like Gershman, feel to this day that the cities mistakenly capitulated to the corps. Back then, they geared up for a new battle.

Coming together

Fans of the diversion refocused their criticism on the corps alignment plan. It called for predominantly earthen levees that, Gershman estimates, would have taken out two-thirds of downtown, including his 1886 home on historic Reeves Drive.

Gershman and others became vocal proponents of incorporating floodwalls, which would allow the city to move the barriers closer to the river. But the corps demurred: Floodwalls were considerably more expensive, and you couldn’t top them off in case of a high crest.

“That’s when we started coming up with compromises,” says Kevin Dean, the Grand Forks public information officer.

The City Council had hired a Seattle-based engineering firm, Shannon and Wilson, to study the diversion alternative. When the council voted to go with the levee system, the firm’s team focused on incorporating floodwalls into the barrier design.

“Initially it was not very fun,” Hedin recalls about the second-guessing of her team. “We thought we had the best information and the right answers. There was a degree of perhaps unwarranted self-confidence. But we quickly realized that was part of what was needed – complete transparency.”

The corps set aside a conference room at its St. Paul offices for the Seattle engineers. And before long, the two groups were working as a team, generating ideas of how to move the barrier closer to the river.

The adjustments saved roughly 150 homes, including the historic mansions on Reeves Street.

Over in downtown East Grand Forks, corps officials, initially nervous about the novel European technology, compromised on using invisible flood walls, steel panels installed into a low brick wall when the water starts rising.

All along, Grand Forks and East Grand Forks worked closely and showed a unified front at Washington, D.C., meetings. Said Stauss, “If you start separating, and the feds see you fighting over the project, they’re less interested in coming through for you.”

The later stages of the planning process were by no means perfectly harmonious. At neighborhood meetings, residents who had rebuilt homes in the path of the levees questioned the barrier’s location. The buyouts of 850 homes and businesses in Grand Forks alone were tinged with bitterness.

After the cities lined up more than $226 million in federal support, officials on both sides of the river had to lobby state legislatures hard for funding. Grand Forks levied property taxes to help raise 35 percent of its cost, a move that also met with opposition. But leading up to the June 2000 groundbreaking, there was a strong sense of stakeholders rallying again.

“Everybody was working together,” said Gershman. “It was tough – let me tell you – but we went beyond the animosity.”

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