Fargo's mayor in the spotlightby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Fargo's mayor, Dennis Walaker, handles the flooding Red River the same way he deals with federal officials, swarms of reporters, and Fargo citizens -- with a stubborn determination softened by a gentle sense of humor. Both qualities come in handy when your town is battling a record-breaking flood.
Fargo, N.D. — For Dennis Walaker, this is nothing new. The only thing that's new is that he's the mayor.
Back in 1997, when Fargo faced its last record-breaking flood, he was the city's public works director. He was elected mayor in 2006.
Hanging on a wall in his office is a photo of himself with President Obama. On another wall, there's a poster from the movie "Fargo."
Walaker is a barrel-chested man, wearing blue jeans and a North Dakota State University sweatshirt.
It's an early Sunday morning meeting, with more than two dozen heads of departments and agencies from all levels of government.
After the meeting, there's a half-hour news conference. Someone asks him about a rumor that federal officials pressed the city to consider mass evacuation.
Walaker says he explained to those officials that Fargo was different from other disaster scenes, and they'd better get used to it.
"The process for the entire United States is not the same as it is for Fargo, North Dakota. Our response is superb, our people are superb, and giving up their homes would be catastrophic," he said.
After a couple of hours of meetings, Walaker finally breaks away to have a look at his city. He's determined to win his battle with the river, and with federal bureaucrats.
"When they develop policy, they try and develop policy for the entire nation. Well, Fargo's different. Fargo is unique," said Walaker.
Why is Fargo so different? "Probably Norwegian stubbornness," was his answer.
On a driving tour of the city, some of the streets near the river are blocked by huge walls of clay. Behind these walls is a row of houses. Behind the houses is another wall.
"Our primary line of defense is along the river, people's backyards. Then the secondary dike is to try to contain it, if the primary fails," Walaker explained. "That's putting people on the wrong side of the dike, we all understand that."
But so far, the primary dikes have held, and the houses in that "No man's land" between the two dikes have been safe.
At the veterans hospital, a clean, strong-looking concrete wall stands tall against the flood.
"That's an engineered concrete wall," he said. "Before, there used to be a coffer dam made out of steel."
The concrete wall ends, and sandbags take up the fight.
The city is a maze of different kinds of barriers -- concrete, sandbags, clay. This year they're trying something new, a wire mesh basket about the size of a big desk, filled with sand. It's used in war zones to protect soldiers.
Walaker stopped the truck and marveled at a scene that is reminiscent of an iron mine. Backhoes are working in a vast field. They've three dug pits 15 feet deep, each one bigger than a football field.
"You try and find borrow -- what we mean is this dirt -- we construct these temporary levees, and after the event you've got to return it and restore it," said Walaker. "We can't do it fast enough for the public, we cannot do it fast enough."
Walaker's favorite place in town these days is the Fargodome, also known as Sandbag Central.
Loaders are scurrying in and out, hauling pallets of sandbags to a row of waiting semi trucks.
A woman stands on the ramp, retrieving sandbags that fall off the pallets, and stacking them on the side. She doesn't have any gloves on, saying she forgot to bring some with her.
Walaker has a bag full of insulated gloves in his truck. They were donated by a citizen who often attends City Council meetings, haranguing the politicians, including Mayor Walaker.
The mayor gave the woman a bunch of gloves, and asked her to pass them on to other workers.
The dome is half-filled with sandbags, and the other half is filled with people, filling more sandbags.
The city had stopped the sandbag operation for a few days, but Sunday morning the call went out again -- just in case more sandbags were needed.
"This was all shut down yesterday," Walaker said. "And to get it going again and see all these people -- what else can you say, it's a huge effort, so that's why we have to win."
Walaker admired the scene for awhile, and then headed back to City Hall for another meeting.
- All Things Considered, 03/30/2009, 5:24 p.m.