Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney looked naked standing before the assembled media at City Hall for a press conference announcing a state of emergency and the need for sandbag volunteers next week. He wasn't naked, thank goodness. But the famed (infamous?) fluorescent yellow safety vest Mahoney wore during the 2009 flood fight and subsequent lesser crests in 2010 and 2011 was nowhere to be seen.
And so things just didn't seem right. If Mahoney is talking about Red River flooding and he's not wearing the vest, is it really official flood talk?
Fear not. The vest will soon make an appearance.
"It's coming out Monday," the mayor said.
That's when the city will begin regular public meetings to assess potential flooding and the response to it. It was at these morning meetings during the historic flood of 2009 when Mahoney and his vest first captured the public's attention. He was deputy mayor at the time, No. 2 to popular Mayor Dennis Walaker, but the vest became Mahoney's flood symbol. He wore it every day during the flood fight, vowing to not take it off until the fight was finished.
The missing vest, though it will make its return, wasn't the only thing absent from Monday's flood press conference. Gone, too, were familiar and dependable faces from flood fights past. Walaker, the revered mayor, died in 2014. Pat Zavoral, the determined city administrator, is retired. Mark Bittner, longtime city engineer who was recognized as the genius of the flood fights even as Walaker hogged the spotlight, is retired. April Walker, another behind-the-scenes engineer, resigned in 2017. Keith Ternes, the police chief in 2009, resigned in 2014.
Standing with Mahoney at the front of City Hall chambers instead were people like Bruce Grubb, now city administrator; Ben Dow, director of operations; Mike Redlinger, assistant city administrator; Leon Schlafmann, emergency services coordinator; David Todd, police chief; and others.
Ten years after the flood fight of a lifetime, the faces are mostly new. To the public, at least. It doesn't mean they are inexperienced.
That's what Mahoney stressed when asked whether Fargo's leadership has the experience to lead the city through a flood fight, whatever that might turn out to be.
"I have concerns because it's awful hard to predict the level of the flood and Denny was the master at that, predicting where that river would come in," Mahoney joked. "But the team that has replaced them institutionally has great knowledge and I'm very confident."
Grubb, for example, has been with the city for about 30 years. He's been through past fights. He just wasn't out front. Redlinger was city manager of Moorhead in '09 and led that city's flood efforts. Todd was a deputy to Ternes in '09. Dow has worked for the city since 1996.
Mahoney estimated about 90 percent of his staff was around in 2009. He also said the city has added personnel since then. The mayor's point: These aren't rookies leading Fargo into what has been defined as a potentially historic flood.
"That's part of leadership, preparing those people under you to step into positions of leadership someday, too," Todd said. "The lieutenants under me when I was a deputy chief are now deputy chiefs themselves. You want to prepare the next generation of leadership to take over and I think we've done that."
In Moorhead, the city manager and mayor are new not only to flood fights but the city itself. The city council's most experienced member is Steve Gehrtz, who has served since 2012 -- three years after the historic flood. Redlinger was the city manager and Mark Voxland the mayor then, since replaced by Chris Volkers and Mayor Johnathan Judd.
"I'm absolutely confident we have the leadership in place. We have Dr. Bob Zimmerman as our city engineer. He's definitely been through this," Judd said. "I'm very confident we will be able to handle what comes our way. Bob is considered one of the top experts on flood issues and we'll be leaning on him."
Beginning next Monday, when Mahoney's vest comes out, the flood fight begins in earnest. A river crest is predicted for sometime in early to mid-April. That gives the new faces in new public positions a few weeks to prove their mettle. They have an impressive legacy — that of Walaker, Bittner and Zavoral — to follow. Mahoney is confident they have the right stuff.