FARGO - If Mayor Dennis Walaker had a nemesis, it was the flood-prone Red River.
It was a muddy, raging foe he became closely acquainted with first as Fargo’s public works director and later as mayor, memorably standing up against a call from federal authorities to evacuate the city in 2009.
“He had a real sense of that river better than anybody, better than the National Weather Service,” former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan said. “He’s the person who knew.”
Dorgan recalled seeing Walaker make tough decisions at critical moments when Fargo was threatened by record flood levels.
“He was the right man at the right time to help that city through very difficult times,” Dorgan said. “It isn’t an overstatement to say that his good judgment and his strong leadership had a lot to do with saving the city.”
National Weather Service meteorologist Greg Gust, who was in the meeting about a possible evacuation, said his main memory of Walaker was him standing up from the table at that meeting to take a call. He came back and told the group President Barack Obama had told him “to do what he needed to do, don’t worry about the cost, that the nation was behind him,” Gust said.
The mayor and other city officials insisted the city couldn’t successfully fight the flood if its residents were evacuated.
“Clear and unequivocal,” Gust recalled of Walaker’s decision.
Cass County Commissioner Darrell Vanyo said his first memories of Walaker are from the 1997 flood. That’s when Walaker was still Fargo’s public works director and Vanyo was a West Fargo commissioner.
Vanyo recalls morning meetings where Walaker kept officials and the public apprised of the flood fight. Through that work, Vanyo “got to know him as a person who worked hard to protect the city he loved,” he said. “I think he always did have the concern of protection of Fargo at heart.”
Walaker was known for the drives he would take far south of Fargo to gauge the Red River and the snow levels throughout its watershed. It was these drives that helped him assess impending floods.
“He would drive around for hours and look at the various stages of the river in all sorts of locations,” U.S. Sen. John Hoeven said.
Walaker would make his own predictions on how high the Red River might get, predictions that were often at odds with National Weather Service flood forecasts. The mayor was frequently skeptical of those weather service forecasts, many issued by Gust.
Gust said the incredulous stance that Walaker took toward the weather service’s predictions was something the mayor played up publicly, possibly for the sake of politics. Behind the scenes, Walaker and city officials actually worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the weather service during times of high water, Gust said.
“If you know Denny, what came into his mind came out of his mouth pretty quickly,” Gust said. “He may have played the folk hero and the folksy guy, but Denny was pretty thick into the understanding and the background” of how flood forecasts were compiled and what they meant.
Former Fargo City Commissioner Brad Wimmer, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Walaker this year, said it was Walaker’s legacy as a flood-fighting public works director that helped him win his first mayoral election. In winning his third term against Wimmer, Walaker questioned whether Wimmer would have made the same call to not evacuate the city in 2009.
“I think the city will remember him as that, a hero of sorts in the city of Fargo. He’s been the face of our floods,” Wimmer said.
In recent years, Walaker was instrumental in pushing for the construction of a 36-mile, $1.8 billion flood-diversion channel.
“He was very, very committed to that,” Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt said. “I’m sorry he didn’t live to see it become a reality.”
Without Walaker, Berndt still believes the diversion project will proceed.
“I think people will be that much more determined. Nobody’s going to slow down or miss a beat because the mayor passed,” Berndt said. “As the diversion comes to fruition, I think people will always think about Mayor Walaker being an influential part of it.”