Fargo mayor: In the eye of the storm

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2009 - 8:56 AM

Fargo's mayor earned his stripes during the 1997 flood, but now there are no guarantees.

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Part of Mayor Dennis Walaker's duty is to answer flood related questions by the national media.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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The sun had yet to rise over the bloated Red River Saturday as Dennis Walaker flipped on the lights to his City Hall office. ¶ It was 5:30 a.m. on Day 9 of the city's grueling battle with the stubborn Red, and Walaker, a first-term mayor of Fargo, looked whipped. ¶ "I could use some more sleep," he said quietly while sifting through messages. ¶ As the point man and the face and voice of his city's 2009 flood fight, there just isn't time.

The Red hit a record crest of 40.82 early Saturday, and though it began to drop slightly throughout the day, Walaker, a longtime veteran of flood fights, isn't convinced it won't rise in coming days, pounding nearly 35 miles of levees across the city and taxing them to the max.

Until it drops for good, it's his job to lead the meetings, work the phones and deliver the pep talks to keep his flood fighters focused and Fargo's nearly 100,000 residents safe.

"We haven't had time to think about failure," Walaker, 68, said as he drove through the city Saturday to inspect some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods. "Are we concerned? Are we worried? Of course we are.

"But ... we've never lost. And that's the attitude we're taking right now."

He knows the Red

Battling the Red is nothing new for Walaker, who as an assistant director of public works and operations, supervised the city's flood-fighting efforts for two decades. The worst, until this year, came in 1997, when the Red rose and spilled over its banks from Breckenridge to Lake Winnipeg, swallowing and destroying most everything in its cold and muddy wake.

Few towns escaped unscathed. But Fargo and its sister city, Moorhead, Minn., largely stayed dry. Some of it was luck, some of it was timing. Some of it, folks say, was because of the planning and strategies of county and city officials, Walaker included.

People never forgot. When Walaker retired and ran for mayor in 2006, he won.

"He fought the flood and won in '97 and I think that's what got him elected," said Fargo city Commissioner Brad Wimmer.

That he's calling shots this time around, albeit in a different role, "is so dang reassuring," said Fred Drenkow, 68, whose home on the city's north side is being threatened by the river.

"He's been schooled in this," said Chet Leverson, 82, who lives next door to Drenkow. "He knows instinctively just when to push the buttons."

A tall, soft-spoken man, Walaker favors baseball caps, jeans and tennis shoes, and his style plays well in this blue-collar, college and agricultural town about 240 miles west of the Twin Cities.

"Dennis doesn't chew anybody out," Wimmer said. "He's very methodical in his thought process, and he's got a lot of knowledge stored up from the '97 flood. He's soothing for the citizens of Fargo."

Part of it is his background. Walaker grew up in a small town not far from Fargo and spent most of his adult life working for the city as a civil engineer, capping his career in the 1997 flood fight, when he drove his city-issued Ford Bronco from levee to levee.

Residents liked what they saw: mud on his shoes, the three-day-old stubble on his face and a guy unafraid of long hours.

"He was one of us," said Pete Sabo, who runs a pub near North Dakota State University "He got his hands dirty. People identified with him."

It didn't hurt that Fargo didn't get swamped like Grand Forks to the north and Breckenridge to the south.

Still, the '97 success and the approval of thousands brings little guarantee in this fight.

"If we win, it'll be a good feeling," Walaker said. "If we lose, I'll basically be a one-term mayor."

Heavy schedule

Walaker's Saturday started with a 6 a.m. network TV interview in the 10-degree cold outside City Hall. By 7, he was meeting with more than two dozen government officials in the daily briefing. Ten minutes later, he was off to do an interview on CNN, feeling that he had to set the record straight about what was really going on in his city.

"Everything is not chaos in Fargo," he said, explaining that the Red had dropped ever so slightly overnight and that the city was optimistic. "We're in a holding mode right now. We have more dikes and flood protection in the neighborhoods than we've ever had. ...The problem is nobody in this valley, no matter how old you are, has ever seen anything like this."

Up next was an 8 a.m. media briefing followed by more TV interviews outdoors. By 10:30 a.m., he broke free for 90 minutes to hop into his SUV and drive neighborhoods where the Red threatens most. It was the first chance in days to make that drive.

"No way in hell these things are going to fail," he said, pointing to a clay flood wall on the city's north side.

As National Guard troops worked with a tractor to fortify a levee at another stop, he paused to talk with homeowners Drenkow and Leverson

"Can you believe it?" he asked Leverson.

"I can believe it," Leverson said, smiling. "We've been through a lot of these things, Dennis."

As demanding and stressful as the past 10 days have been, the mayor said there have been rewards.

In 1997, the city had a month to fill 3.5 million sandbags and prepare for the crest after a winter of heavy snow -- nearly 120 inches in Fargo.

This year, half as much snow fell. The city didn't begin its major sandbagging efforts until 10 days ago, after the National Weather Service projected a crest of 40 feet or more.

Still, volunteers helped fill 3 million sandbags.

"These people are good people," Walaker said. "I get emotional when I walk into a room and see these people who don't want to give up to the Red River of the North."

The mayor got another lift Friday when President Obama called and talked with him for 10 minutes to make sure Fargo had the resources it needs.

"It certainly woke me up," Walaker said of the call. "I became the Energizer Bunny the rest of the day."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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