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Von Pinnon: Five years ago, victory over flood captured world’s attention

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Von Pinnon: Five years ago, victory over flood captured world’s attention
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Five years ago today, the Fargo-Moorhead area held its collective breath.

The Red River gauge in Fargo hovered at 40.84 feet, the highest flood crest ever seen here.

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And yet nobody declared victory.

A major snowstorm was predicted, with up to 10 inches of heavy, wet snow on the way.

That and the flood forecasts in the previous week changed almost daily.

A mere nine days prior to that Saturday in 2009, it was thought the Red could possibly reach a plateau similar to the 1997 flood of 39.72 feet.

But nobody then could have predicted what was to come – and why this flood fight on the flat Northern Plains would soon capture the world’s attention.

It made news across the globe not because it failed, but rather because it won. And because of how it won — with everybody from little school kids to aging grandmothers playing a role in the collective fight.

In some ways, this five-year anniversary of one of the most significant — if not the most significant — events in our community’s history is barely noticed because it was won, and because its impact on us is woven into so much of how we see our community and its future.

But it was a tense time, whether you lived within the river’s potential reach or just wondered what a catastrophic flood would mean for the place you call home.

The story really started the fall before, when heavy rains saturated land within the Red River basin.

Then the snow started falling early and often. On March 10, 2009, 10 inches of new snow made it go from bad to worse. On March 20, 10 days later, the Red at Fargo surpassed the minor flood stage of 18 feet.

It was predicted then the Red would crest between 37 and 40 feet between March 28 and April 4.

Sandbagging efforts were really ramping up and the normal dikes were built in the low spots.

By Sunday, March 22, a 39- to 41-foot crest was now predicted — and it would come sooner than previously expected.

The National Guard was dispatched to keep order. Media outlets began delivering news around the clock. Schools canceled classes so students could help fill sandbags — seen in hindsight as one of the most important decisions that led to victory.

By Monday, March 23, 10,000 people were helping fill sandbags or build sandbag dikes. Public buses used to dispatch volunteers to key areas couldn’t keep up with all the people who wanted to help. Neighborhood meetings were held all over.

By Tuesday, March 24, the river had surged into major flood stage and was at 33.22 feet. Talk of possible evacuations began.

On Wednesday, March 25, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker declared the area in “uncharted territory.” Flooding along the Wild Rice and Sheyenne rivers, which feed the Red, were also now in major play. More than 20 people living in Oxbow, Abercrombie and Hickson south of Fargo had to leave their homes and be rescued by boat. In many rural areas, officials were urging the aged and young to be moved out of harm’s way.

On Thursday, March 26, the unthinkable: Forecasters said the Red in Fargo-Moorhead could reach 42 or 43 feet in two days. It was now a hair below 40 feet.

Both Fargo and Moorhead called for the evacuations of several near-river neighborhoods. MeritCare Hospital, now Sanford downtown, moved patients out of town, as did some area nursing homes.

“We want to go down swinging if we go down,” said Walaker, a stance we later learned he also took in a closed-door meeting in which federal and state officials urged an evacuation of the entire community.

On Friday, March 27, the community was eerily still. Many businesses were closed. Streets were quiet but for some flood-fighting vehicles. National Guard members stood sentinel at neighborhood entry points.

Schools canceled classes the entire next week, not knowing if schools would be under water, their students displaced or, at best, the river still dangerously high.

Even a day after the crest, a permanent flood wall at Fargo’s Oak Grove School was breached, flooding two of the five buildings on campus.

Two days after the crest, the predicted winter storm dumped 10 inches of snow.

It made things messy, but the river had begun its long retreat. A month later, the Red would still be in flood stage.

And just as the Red was calming down, the flood of record for many communities along the Sheyenne was just getting started. It would eventually crest at 20.69 feet April 13 in Valley City.

It’s also important to note that not everyone in our area beat the flood of 2009.

More than 500 homes had significant water damage. Most of those homes have since been bought out and moved or torn down.

And in many ways the flood of 2009 — as well as the major floods of 2010 and 2011 — continues to color our consciousness. This time of year, even when the Red is low like it is now, we watch it, knowing its capabilities.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.