MOORHEAD, MINN. – The Red River boomed and groaned south of Fargo-Moorhead as it threw off its winter armor this past week, breaking entire limbs off trees along its banks with gunshot-like snaps. In the coming week, the river will rise and widen dramatically, filling parklands, forcing roads and bridges to close, and creeping toward the tops of whatever earth berms and walls and piles of clay and sandbags people have built to contain it.
By Wednesday, the Red is expected to reach its fifth-highest level ever here. But the anxiety that might be expected with such an extreme has been replaced by a sense of calm confidence. Two feet and four years from the record flood of 2009, Fargo and Moorhead are different cities, both in appearance and attitude.
Around the two cities, long, grassy berms now stand where entire blocks of homes once did; only the trees remain, creating a repeating pattern of small, parklike spaces with views of the river. Utility boxes, unremarkable in most urban areas, now stand on high platforms with metal stairways for access. Here and there, huge red pipes emerge from the ground, where tractors stand ready to pump water out of the sewer system and over levees into the river. That’s because another major but unseen improvement allows gates to close off connections between the sewers and the river, preventing backup.
Moorhead has even reached a point that might have been unthinkable in 2009, when volunteers stuffed and distributed about 2.5 million sandbags.
“We’re getting out of the sandbag business,” Mayor Mark Voxland said.
Since 2009, Moorhead has cleared away 206 flood-prone homes, with buyouts pending on another 11. The city’s goal is 263 removals. That action, the sewer work and 7 miles of levees have an ultimate cost of $103 million; 70 percent of that is covered by flood damage-reduction grants from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and $30 million is from local special assessments and stormwater and wastewater fees.
In the past, a river level like the one expected this week would have required perhaps 1.2 million sandbags; this year the city expects to fill the few remaining gaps in its protections with about 5 percent as many. The number of homes needing sandbags has dropped from 190 to 12.
Later this year, Moorhead city leaders will be reviewing the policy that Voxland calls “sandbag welfare,” in which the city provides residents with sandbags and removes them when the waters recede.
The high water of 2009 “really got us moving,” he said. “People saw how much work had to be done. We didn’t want to do that again in the future. We wanted to offer protection with the least amount of outside help and be able to get ready as quickly as we can. We didn’t want to have to shut down the colleges or stop our businesses. We just want to have a normal city.”
The western front
Across the river, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said that if it weren’t for the apparently renewable enthusiasm of students for making and “throwing” sandbags, the city might not have been able to fight back the high floods of recent years. Walaker himself, who was the city’s public works director before becoming mayor, has now commanded 13 spring flood fights and wants to finish his third and final term undefeated.
“People are tired of going through this process,” he said. “Is it getting old for me? Absolutely.”
On Friday, President Obama approved North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s request for an emergency declaration that will provide federal help with flooding. The declaration mentions five counties, including Cass, where Fargo is located. Rural areas are expecting significant disruptions from the high water, including road washouts.
Fargo has bought and removed 182 homes since 2009 for $33.6 million and spent another $22.5 million on 14.4 miles of flood walls, levees and other improvements. Protection isn’t complete, but Walaker said he’s hearing criticism that making more than 1 million sandbags this year — work that began when crest predictions were higher — was wasted effort.
Walaker, meanwhile, has taken the lead in lobbying for a $1.8 billion ditch around Fargo that would significantly reduce the amount of water even a record Red River flow would bring through the cities. That proposal has stalled in Washington and generated opposition from farm communities upstream, where water would be stored during spring melts and possibly wet growing seasons. But that project would take 10 years to build once the money is approved, so the city also needs to improve some protections now, Walaker said.
Why does anybody live there?
Voxland, on a tour of Moorhead, pointed out the park near downtown, bisected by the Red, that routinely becomes a 15-foot-deep lake each spring. When he was a kid, he swam in the public pool in the park, long since flooded out.
Studies for the diversion project have determined that the Red River Valley has gone through wet and dry cycles each lasting decades. Many of the houses that Moorhead and Fargo have bought out were expensive, contemporary homes, built on the edges of ravines overlooking the Red during one of the dry cycles.
Tom and Mary Moberg’s home on River Drive South in Fargo was built in the 1970s; when they bought it in 2003, they were told it hadn’t flooded in the high water of 1997. It has happened since: They’ll sandbag for the fifth time this year, but it will be the last. They’ve sold the house to the city and are moving elsewhere in Fargo, staying because they’re active in the community and have developed friendships. The house will be removed.
Since they bought the house, Mary Moberg said, “We’ve come to believe probably none of these homes should have ever been built. The city is doing the right thing. It’s just unfortunate.”
She and Tom Moberg both said flood fights bonded them tightly with their neighbors, as well as with the larger community of volunteers and city staff who have helped and advised them during floods.
Tom Moberg said the city offered them a deal they couldn’t really refuse: 110 percent of the appraised taxable value on a house that no one else would want to buy. They’re retired and need to protect assets.
Tom Moberg said he’ll miss the view of the river — 100 yards away in summer, at their doorstep in spring — as well as the owls, eagles and beavers it attracts.
“But I’m 70 years old,” he said. “I don’t know how long I can keep lifting sandbags.”
The need for sandbags has been reduced not only by public works projects but also by new tools in Fargo and Moorhead. Easily constructed retaining walls, walls of sandbag bins, and even rollout plastic envelopes that can be quickly filled with river water to make walls — fighting water with water — are popping up all over the cities. Meanwhile, both Fargo and Moorhead have discovered that it’s possible to store unused sandbags from year to year, if they’re covered from the sun’s rays. Fargo had 800,000 on hand coming into this spring, even after giving that many to Bismarck, N.D., last year.
But even as the fight goes on in Fargo and Moorhead, an affection for the Red remains. It was in Mary Moberg’s voice as she watched and listened to the ice break up, from the home she and her husband are leaving.
“It’s starting to be a river again,” she said, “instead of a big piece of ice.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.