Learning the lessons of past Red River floodsby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Fargo, N.D. — The levees are all in place in Fargo-Moorhead, and now residents are awaiting a crest on the Red River. The river could crest Saturday more than a foot below the record, but still one of the largest floods in 120 years.
City officials have warned residents against complacency, because the urgency and chaos of past flood fights is missing this year. But, for many residents, it's been the easiest flood fight they can recall.
"I wouldn't say we're complacent," said John Stern, who lives along the river in south Fargo and is a veteran of more than 20 years of Red River floods. "I wouldn't say there's complacency at all, but confidence. We know we can do this because we've done it before."
Stern is keeping an eye on his six pumps. Water that leaks through his dike and seeps into his basement must be pumped back into the river 24 hours a day. He has a clay dike topped with sandbags and a concrete flood wall protecting his home.
It's a very different scene from 1997, when the river was kept at bay by an eight-foot wall of sandbags.
"And it leaked like a sieve," Stern recalled. "I had 11 electric pumps going, blowing fuses all the time, so I had to get a generator and plug into the generator, Finally I got a gas pump. That was real panic city in 1997."
Stern said he's learned lessons from every flood since 1997, and each lesson makes the next flood easier. His first lesson came when his dad followed an order to evacuate. With pumps turned off, his house filled with water.
"If he hadn't left his house, if he hadn't turned off his electricity, he would have been fine," Stern said. "That's when I learned my first flood lesson. You leave the house, you lose the house."
As Stern stood next to the river talking, pump hoses spit water into the river, ducks swim past, geese fly overhead and a squirrel complains about the water surrounding the tree he lives in.
Next door, Jim Papacek sits on a brick retaining wall that's part of a permanent flood levee in his back yard. About two feet of sandbags top the levee. He says homeowners in this neighborhood have spent money every year to make the flood fight easier, and it's paying off.
"And we sit and argue now how high it's going to go, rather than who's going to do what," Papacek said.
That doesn't mean it's all been a walk in the park. This year's flood fight brought its own brand of stress, as people geared up for a third straight year with a flood.
"There were a lot of people this year that were very frustrated and afraid and tired, and sometimes they wore their emotions on their sleeves," Papacek said. "I don't think there's going to be any hard feelings when it's all said and done."
The Red River will stay high enough for the next 10 days or so that these neighbors will need to watch their dikes and pumps around the clock.
Stern said he's been getting up every two hours to check the pumps, but it's difficult to get a good night's sleep.
"It's a little bit like having a newborn. There's a part of you that's always aware, listening for the cry. For me, it's listening for a sound that's not normal."
Stern and his neighbors are already talking about lessons learned from this flood, and what they plan to do to be better prepared for the next one.