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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, , , , , , , , ,

One Response

  1. Jim Cannon says:

    I like the way our Mayor sidestepped the issue of her not being more visible during the flood.Fagan may have a calm,quiet voice,but he was not the Mayor.It makes no difference what your voice is like,if you are the leader of a
    city or state the you are the one who needs to get out there and tell the people what is going on.
    In listening to some of the interviews,it appears that Mayor
    Walaker is keeping up to date on what is going on and is able to give answers to questions that the people might have instead of telling them,like we were told,that’s a good question,but I don’t have the answer to that.
    Just goes to show you what a younger,more alert and
    wide awake Mayor can do.Keep an eye on this Kay just in case something else happens before you get voted out of office,that is if you make the mistake of trying to run again

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