From chopping down trees to torching ice, Fargo residents use new methods in their flood fight

By Jim Suhr, AP
Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fargo residents learn from mistakes in flood fight

FARGO, N.D. — Before this flood season, officials in Fargo asked homeowners to clear paths in their yards so that firm and straight walls of sandbags could be placed to protect their homes. One resident cut down his tree. Another went so far to use a torch to melt the ice off his ground.

Last year, Fargo wasn’t so prepared. Homeowners put sandbags right on top of snow instead of the bare ground, allowing water to seep underneath and in some cases, causing dikes to collapse. Other less-sturdy barriers toppled over, and floodwaters flowed into homes.

The flood-weary city is well versed in flood preparation because it’s learned from its mistakes, especially after last year’s record-breaking flood. As a result, many here feel they’ve already won the flood fight against the Red River even though it’s not expected to crest for a few more days.

“Our people our quite euphoric,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Thursday as he tried to mute the celebration. “It’s probably premature to be too euphoric.”

The National Weather Service is forecasting the river to crest Sunday at 20 feet above the flood stage, meaning the overflowing river waters could threaten homes, parks and roads in several low-lying neighborhoods.

Last year, the city scrambled to get finished in time, forcing some residents to frantically sandbag and sump pump the rising river water out of their yards at the same time.

It’s a much calmer scene this year in Fargo. City officials declared Thursday they were done sandbagging and the clay levees were 99 percent complete. At a flood planning meeting, they even handed out awards to the top volunteer sandbaggers.

“The experience of last year made a big difference,” Fargo city administrator Pat Zavoral said. “Everyone has realized that until we get the (river) diversion, we will still have a 15-year period where we’re going to need to know how to do these emergency measures. So we might as well be good at it.”

The city made several changes in its flood fighting plans after the 2009 flood damaged hundreds of homes, forced thousands to evacuate and caused an estimated $100 million in damage.

Regular meetings were held with residents in vulnerable neighborhoods that provided specific directions on how to build sandbag dikes. At these meetings, officials suggested that homeowners clear a path in their yards so once the sandbags were placed directly on the ground, the two could create a seal to keep the water out. Last year, river water flowed underneath sandbags that were placed on top of snow and ice and not straight on the ground.

Fargo resident Marc Shannon took a propane torch normally used to kill weeds in his back yard to melt the snow and ice before laying his sandbags on the ground. His neighbor Karry Hoganson used a chainsaw to cut down an evergreen tree near his yard so the sandbags could be placed in a straight line.

“That tree was a hassle last year,” Hoganson said.

For those who couldn’t make the meetings, the city posted a how-to video on its Web site.

“That was just Dike Building 101,” said Brad Wimmer, Fargo city commissioner.

Also on the city’s Web site: an interactive flood map that residents can use to find the elevation of each property with a click of the mouse. The city also assigned specific engineers to each neighborhood to assist homeowners with building sandbag dikes, and each area designated a captain to communicate directly with city officials.

Over the past months, the city also held exercises to map out the best routes for trucking sandbags to neighborhoods, something Zavoral believes expedited the delivery of the 20- to 30-pound sandbags.

“We’ve been planning for this event for the last month,” said Rob Hasey, a city engineer, who had to make a couple of last-minute levee checks on Thursday. “It’s an acquired skill you get from getting thrown into the fire.”

In an effort to reach out to more residents, Fargo, and its neighbor on the other side of the river, Moorhead, Minn., used social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter for the first time.

“I think it’s helping to keep people informed and I think it’s reaching a different demographic. It’s reaching people who are out and about and don’t necessarily have time to sit down at their computers,” said Fargo city spokeswoman, Karena Carlson.

Some homeowners in one low-lying neighborhood where the Red River winds around their houses also were trying new tactics this year.

Wearing knee-high rubber boots and yellow work gloves, Ed Weber described how one of the makeshift sandbag barriers he built last year gave in. Floodwaters swallowed up his basement and rose into the first floor of his three-bedroom house, ultimately forcing him to spend about $80,000 to rehab the place.

This year, like many of his neighbors, Weber is placing his faith in Aqua Dam, a water-filled, rubberized barrier he plans to encircle his 1,850 square feet. He hopes the 350 feet of protection that’ll stand about 3 feet high will be worth the $9,000 he’s paying for it.

“We’re gonna change the name of Troy Street to Aqua Dam Road,” he said Thursday between puffs on generic cigarettes.

Across the road, Dick Johnson won’t argue that. A year ago, Johnson was anything but high and dry, watching helplessly as floodwaters that submerged his basement rose nearly half a foot.

“We used sandbags last year, but the ground was frozen where we put them down. … The water came up underneath, and that was it,” the 71-year-old retired heating-and-cooling specialist said. “Now,” he said while walking with the help of a cane and portable respirator, “I’m too darn old to even think about sandbagging.”

So he’s turned his home into a veritable fortress. Roughly 100 dump-truck loads of clay have been stacked and packed into a 4-foot-tall berm encircling his home and the camper trailer parked next to it.

That barrier — something he expects to seed and permanently make part of his front yard — will be complemented by the 72 feet of Aqua Dam he’s got ready to fill with water from his ditches.

“This is a heckuva lot easier than sandbags, and I think this should work out best,” he submits. “I’m convinced this is the only way.”

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