The Hot Beat


The second-day story, with your help. Call Gazette reporter Adam Belz at (319) 398-8273 or e-mail him:

Predators and sandbag bombs help Fargo flood fight

The Air National Guard is accustomed to piloting Predator drone airplanes, but not over Fargo.

The surveillance aircraft — which has gotten a lot of use in Afghanistan and Iraq — has come in handy in fighting the flood, a fight that has seen its share of high-tech innovations.

“We have an amazing amount of technology to fight these floods,” Fargo Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney said.

Authorities have used an unmanned Predator to fly over the area, taking real-time images of the rising Red River.

“Greg Gust, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the the Predator has really helped.

“Our river forecasters are not only able to see in real time the aerial extent of the water but the flows going over land and all these breakouts, and actually measure that from those flights, which means getting an incredible handle on all that water we didn’t know where it was,” Gust told the Fargo Forum.

The unmanned aircraft is on loan from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The aircraft is permanently stationed in Grand Forks and being piloted from California, according to the National Guard.

Also, the National Guard is also dropping giant sandbags on weak parts of the levees.

Using a Black Hawk helicopter, the Guard placed 11 of the sandbags along the north side of Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo to slow the flow of water coming into the building, the Forum reports.

The reinforced plastic bags are cinched at the top and lifted by the helicopter’s cable system. People on the ground direct the bag exactly where it needs to be placed, the Forum reports.


Filed under: Flood, , , , ,

Fargo leaders call for new levee system

Though the historic flood only began to recede in Fargo on Saturday, the mayor and city commission are already pushing for a federally-funded permanent flood protection system.

Though the titanic citywide effort to hold back the Red River was largely successfuly, “You wouldn’t want to do this every year,” Fargo Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney said Sunday “All we’re asking for is $800 million.”

The 1997 flood was disastrous for Grand Forks, but in comparison, Fargo escaped. Grand Forks built a huge levee system that has kept the city calm this week, Fargo built only piecemeal flood protection.

Cedar Rapids is helping the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expedite a study of the Cedar River valley so Cedar Rapids can build a levee system of its own. The study could take another two years. Building he levees and flood walls could take 15 years.

Filed under: Cedar Rapids City Council, Flood, , , , ,

Fargo mayor steps to the plate

FARGO, N.D. — With his towering 6-foot-5 frame, steady calm and wise-cracks, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker is the face of North Dakota’s flood fight.

Each morning at 8 a.m., he leads an open-to-the-public meeting where city, state and non-profit officials tell each other and residents — on live television — exactly how high the Red River is, which neighborhoods are in danger and what authorities are doing to ensure the city’s safety.

As the water slowly recedes in Fargo, the government response here offers an instructive contrast to the response in Cedar Rapids in June. Walaker — a visible, confident city leader — is a key difference.

“I don’t think we would want anyone else in this situation,” Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn said. “He’s Denny. He’s authentic. People like that.”

Walaker spent 32 years as Fargo’s public works director and headed the battle against the Red River in 1997, so for he and other city officials, floods are familiar. That experience allows their meetings often to be light-hearted, with Walaker’s confidence and grim humor at the center.

He joked all week he couldn’t find his mother, and said Sunday the reason he was allowing restaurants to reopen was because he missed Dairy Queen.

“I’ve been dealing with this since 1974,” Walaker, 69, said.

After the 1997 flood, Walaker helped develop a thick flood response document that outlines where the city’s dikes should be built, who is evacuated when and many other plans. In recent weeks, the city published an action plan booklet to guide its response to this flood.

In Cedar Rapids, where the flood was a complete surprise and wildly unprecedented, calls for stronger city leadership started almost immediately after the flood. Mayor Kay Halloran and City Manager Jim Prosser took back seats at public events, and City Council Member Brian Fagan began speaking publicly more often.

“Brian Fagan was the face of the flood for Cedar Rapids,” Halloran said. “He was the one with the calm, quiet voice, so we deliberately did it that way.”

But other council members often spoke, and Linn County Supervisors stepped to the microphone. People in Cedar Rapids were confused about who was in charge.

There is no such confusion in Fargo, which has a part-time commission style of government. Walaker is the leader, and Deputy Mayor Dr. Tim Mahoney, a local surgeon, is his right-hand man. Walaker is popular with Fargo residents, even if they poke fun at him.

“I try to be as honest as I possibly can,” Walaker said. “They want someone who’s somewhat confident, and tells them if there are problems.”

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven and Rep. Earl Pomeroy attended every morning meeting late last week, leading city officials to joke they’re the city’s sixth and seventh commissioners.

Halloran argued that Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, who frequently helicoptered in to Cedar Rapids during the flood, had more to think about than Hoeven, because the Iowa floods affected a greater area.

“I don’t think that the governor of North Dakota has as much on his plate as the governor of Iowa,” she said.

But while Fargo, population 92,000, is North Dakota’s biggest city, it’s not the only town battling the flooding Red River. Cedar Rapids, which sustained by far the heaviest blow from the June flood, is Iowa’s second-biggest city, with a population of 126,000.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Filed under: Cedar Rapids City Council, Flood, , , , , , , , ,

River dropping — maybe — in Fargo

The Red River may have crested at 40.85 feet, an all-time record, in Fargo early this morning.

But Greg Gust (yes, that’s right) of the National Weather Service said don’t get too excited yet.

“We’re going to be sitting here (at this level) at Fargo-Moorhead for another week,” he said.

He also pointed out that lots of snow and ice will melt soon, and more precipitation is coming on Sunday and Monday.

“At some point, there’s going to be movement of that water,” Gust told Fargo’s WDAY Radio.
“We could see a secondary rise, and a higher level than what we’ve seen.”

He still thinks that 42 feet is probably a worst-case scenario, and the dikes in Fargo protect to 43 feet.

Filed under: Flood, , , , , ,

Marion chopper pilot on site in Fargo

Perry Walton boomeranged his chopper in for a landing Saturday morning over the flat, white fields east of Moorhead, Minn, fresh off his seventh mission flying over the swollen Red River.

The Marion resident who spent 25 years as a Cedar Rapids police officer has been taking reporters over the valley since Thursday, when he left Marion at 4:30 a.m. to drive to Fargo.

He’s charging reporters $500 per hour, but offers free flights to municipalities.

“We offer our services to the sheriff’s and police departments free of charge — on a limited basis, of course,” Walton said.

Walton, 60, flew the Cedar Rapids Police helicopter before the program was canned in recent years. He now flies a piston-powered Enstrom F-28. He’s logged 35,000 hours piloting helicopters, and he offers “disaster services” in a five-state area — Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska and Missouri.

Walton was forced to evacuate from his hotel in Moorhead, and is now staying at the airport.

“One of these days I’m going to retire,” Walton said.

Later today he plans to take Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland up to see the damage. Moorhead is getting it worse than Fargo. In Oakport Township, just north of Moorhead, water surrounds hundreds of homes and authorities are taking airboats through the streets to cut power to abandoned homes.

Filed under: Cedar Rapids City Council, Flood, , , , , , ,

Fargo-Moorhead struggling with HESCOs and tiger dams

The flood protection devices Cedar Rapids plans to use in the years before a levee system is built are being tested in Fargo and Moorhead, and getting mixed reviews.

HESCO barriers make up 10 miles of the 35 to 40 miles of dikes in Fargo. They are interlocking wire and burlap baskets filled with sand from above, and they form a wall against the water.

But HESCO barriers are sliding out at the bottom in some places under the pressure of flood water, and have to be reinforced with sand on the backside, said Mark Bittner, Fargo’s city engineer. This is the first time Fargo has ever used HESCO barriers, and some that were meant for Cedar Rapids were diverted here this week.

“They’re kicking out at the bottom,” Bittner said. “We’re having a lot of problems with them.”

He said, as he did yesterday, that filling the baskets is difficult unless they’re on level ground — like a street. When the baskets were placed on small levees or uneven backyards, skidloaders and endloaders struggled to get to them and fill them with sand.

This would be a problem in Cedar Rapids, said Craig Hanson, Cedar Rapids’ public works manager.

“That was my fear,” Hanson said, pointing out that putting HESCO baskets on the levee next to Time Check will be difficult.

The other flood protection measure Cedar Rapids has purchased is tiger dams, rubber or plastic tubes that can be filled with water to form a temporary levee against floodwater.

In Moorhead, across the river from Fargo, the city placed a few blocks of tiger dams along the river as an emergency measure. The water in the tubes three-foot high tubes is “freezing and expanding,” said Shannon Monroe, Deputy Chief of Police in Moorhead.

This is a problem for two reasons: the tubes are cracking in some places, and ice floats.

“It’s quick to set up and it would largely be more useful in warm climates,” Monroe said. “We were out of time.”

Water is pooling and freezing in the streets on the dry side of the tiger dam in Moorhead, about a foot deep.

Filed under: Cedar Rapids City Council, Flood, , , ,

Night time dike patrol in south Fargo

Jon and I spent the evening with Neil Litton, an old friend of WMT’s Bob Bruce who showed us around on Thursday afternoon.

Litton and his family live 500 feet from a creek bed called Drain 27. In normal times, it joins Rose Creek a little further east and flows into the Red River a little over a mile away.

Tonight Drain 27 is broad as a river, on both sides contained only by dikes made with sandbags and HESCO baskets.

The neighborhood — like most neighborhoods in Fargo — has banded together to monitor the dike 24 hours a day. There’s a sign-up sheet hanging on someone’s back deck, where people can volunteer for a two hour shift checking for seepage and breaches. The sheet is full until Tuesday, when only one slot is open, from 2 to 4 a.m.

Litton guided us out to where the dike winds through the woods behind his development. We took flashlights. Heavy equipment beeped and scraped in the distance. It was 12 degrees and steam drifted off the water.

We ran into the people patrolling, a couple that was walking the dike from west to east. The caked mud along the sandbag wall was rutted and frozen. We only found a couple spots where the water trickled under the dike.

We noticed that the water, with thin slabs of ice floating on the surface, was flowing backwards. It was flowing away from the Red River toward the west, the surest sign that the Red is yet to crest. When creeks — coulees, as they call them here — begin to flow toward the river again, Fargo residents will breathe a sigh of relief. Until then, they’re watching the dikes.

“Just like we spent all that time putting the dike up, we work together to keep monitoring it,” said Tracee Buethner, who was patrolling the dike.

She was worried not that the water would top the dikes, but that the added pressure of another foot of water — the Red is at 40.8 feet and the projected crest is 42 feet — would breach dikes in some places.

Water was flowing over the bridge at 40th Avenue S, and piles of clay blocked water and the road on both sides.

The clay for such dikes is coming from the soccer fields at Centennial Elementary School, just down 40th Avenue. Endloaders, excavators and backhoes had turned the fields into a giant crater. It was like something from science fiction — the white lights of the heavy equipment, the steam rising from the clay and the homes and elementary school in the background.

Filed under: Flood, , , ,

Eastern Iowans helping out in Fargo

I’ve talked to three people with Eastern Iowa ties in the last few minutes, all in Fargo-Moorhead to help the city respond to the flood.

Barb Pitt is here with a group of Red Cross volunteers — five from Cedar Rapids and two from Waterloo. They’re handing out meals to workers, working long days and planning to stay into next week.

“We were making delivery to the ambulance staging center,” Pitt said. “The workers are all beat.”

But she said people are generally “energetic” and “very appreciative.”

Tom Boeckmann, of Vinton, the administrative officer for the Iowa One Disaster Medical Assistance Team called this afternoon too. The team, headquartered at Kirkwood Community College, is on its way to North Dakota this afternoon. They’re a little north of Sioux Falls.

The team consists of 34 physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacist, nurses, and other emergency personnel. They have the ability to run a self-sustained hospital in an austere environment without new supplies for many days, which is good because MeritCare Hospital in Fargo was evacuated last night.

The Disaster Medical Assistance Team is a unit of the United States Department of Health and Human Services and is based in the Community Training and Response Center on the Kirkwood campus. Team members live throughout Iowa and neighboring states. Most recently the team responded to Galveston Texas for Hurricane Gustav.

And finally, we ran into a guy named Dana Skare, who grew up in Marion and lived there until 1978.

Dana Skare checks out the Red River from a parking ramp in Moorhead, Minn. He's a volunteer from Rochester, Minn., who grew up in Marion.

Dana Skare, a Marion native, checks out the Red River from a parking ramp in Moorhead, Minn. He's a volunteer from Rochester, Minn., who grew up in Marion.

“I went to Linn-Mar,” Skare said.

Now he lives in Rochester, Minn., and drove up yesterday to help sandbag. He’s been at the FARGODOME most of the day.

“I couldn’t stand reading about it in the news, and seeing it on TV,” he said.

Actually lots of people around here seem to have Iowa ties, and there are people here to help from around the region.

Filed under: Flood, , , , , , , ,

Downtown Moorhead deserted but for onlookers

We drove to the top of a parking ramp overlooking the Red River from the Minnesota side, in Moorhead, population 32,000.

The river is touching the bottom of all the bridges to Fargo, and the water is swirling through bottom floor of the parking ramp. The metal steps to the ground disappear into the water.

A guy drove up in a pickup and got out. Walked to the edge of the parking ramp, and looked over.

“We got a little water,” he said.

A girl got out too, and walked toward him.

“Wanna go swimmin’ hun?” he said.

Our streaming video, at the above link, is a little dicey, but Woods keeps working on it.

Moorhead doesn’t get as much attention as Fargo, but the city has recommended that residents leave the southwest corner of the city and a low-lying township to the north where some homes have already flooded.

The downtown is empty. People are walking and driving across the Main Avenue bridge, which, other than Interstate 94, is the only bridge across the river.

Filed under: Flood, , , , , ,

C.R. gives key advice to evacuated Fargo hospital

MeritCare Hospital, which is about five blocks from the Red River in Fargo, evacuated about 180 patients last night.

Bruce Pitts, the hospital’s executive vice-president of clinical services, said he consulted officials at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids and received key advice on how to evacuate the patients.

Mercy was forced to evacuate all its patients during the June flood.

When hospitals evacuate, they tag patients to make sure they’re transported correctly, according to their illness — by plane, helicopter, ambulance, bus, etc., Pitts said. The important thing officials at Mercy passed on was to have doctors make sure the tags were correct immediately before the patients left the hospital.

“We were organized and it worked out,” Pitts said. “We had already transferred the sickest.”

The evacuation took about six hours, he said.

Filed under: Flood, , , , , , ,

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