2009-04-09 / Opinions

Fargo folks fail to follow FEMA advice, work hard to save their city from flood

A genuine community miracle happened last week and the rest of America was so busy it seemed we almost failed to take notice.

With the Red River threatening to flood Fargo, North Dakota, the citizens said "no, thanks" to the government's order to abandon their homes and evacuate the city. Instead, tens of thousands of citizens stayed and worked night and day in freezing cold and icy water, and saved their city from flood waters with their bare hands.

Did you get that? The people took action and saved their own homes.

Two weeks ago, as the Red River rose around them, Fargo's city officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency conferred at length on a tough decision: Should they order a mandatory evacuation of the entire city? FEMA, wanting to avoid another Hurricane Katrina, said that based on what happened in New Orleans, they wanted to order everyone to evacuate, run away and leave their homes in the hands of FEMA.

Fargo officials strongly disagreed, saying that this was not New Orleans. Different situation, different people.

The local leaders like Mayor Dennis Walaker knew their neighbors, and they knew their city, and they knew what it would take to hold back the Red River. Although the argument with FEMA was heated at times, Fargo ultimately won, and implemented their flood plan.

Here's what the people of Fargo did.

When word went out that Fargo officials had vowed to hold back the river or to "go down swinging," 20,000 volunteers showed up, both from the city and from hundreds of miles away, to work in freezing temperatures. High schools and colleges closed to allow students to come volunteer, and soon lines of teenagers were seen passing heavy, frozen sandbags up to the tops of the city's dikes. Businesses closed and everybody who could help, did help. More than 1,000 members of the North Dakota National Guard worked side-by-side with their neighbors, racing the river to the top of the dikes.

Other volunteers worked with health care workers to evacuate the elderly, the infirm, and the very young to places of safety according the city's flood plan. Thousands displaced from their homes have been taken in by their neighbors, just as the city's flood plan anticipated, but not FEMA's.

Everyone who could stay and help did so, filling some 5 million sandbags, running pumps, cooking and serving food, and doing whatever else was needed. Mind you, they did this in freezing temperatures, working in ice-clogged river water for hours on end, days on end, as the water rose.

It worked. Last week, at the height of the flood, Fargo's levees held strong. They kept back most of the deluge largely because residents were able to stay, fill sandbags, patrol for dike leaks, and monitor pumps to keep water out of homes. Because of that, Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., were largely spared serious damage.

They're not out of the woods yet, though. The weather service is warning of a new crest in mid-April from snowmelt and spring rains. Fargo residents say they're ready for the second round, though, and they're not about to run as long as they can work, no matter what FEMA says.

That's why I had to write to you about the people of Fargo, North Dakota. As self-sufficient as they are, I'll bet they won't mind folks in Georgia praying for them next week.

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