It seems wrong to think about ourselves when Houston is drowning … but how can we avoid the flashbacks?
While we agonize for Texans fighting for their lives, the news video is all too familiar in our own neck of the woods. Here in the Red River Valley, it brings back images we’d all rather forget — Fargo-Moorhead’s valiant fight against then-record waters in 1997; the devastation that followed a few days later in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks; and the all-time record crest in 2009 that nearly took us under.
Memory is a funny thing. Terrors that seem indelible do, somehow, fade and dull in the sunshine. The near-constant pounding and growl of crews building permanent dikes along the river has relieved bad dreams of days when the roaring Red threatened to erase our normal, everyday life for good.
Today, at the end of a dry, dry summer, we’d mostly forgotten those floods … until Hurricane Harvey. Our situation, though different in so many ways, was just as desperate as what we’re witnessing on the nightly news. This is what the weather can do. This is what our own weather has done, as recently as the days when today’s second- and third-graders were being born.
This is what it will do again.
But memory dims and becomes domesticated. Maybe that accounts for the ho-hum that’s come to surround the F-M Area Diversion for most of us in the communities it will protect. While critics strategize ways to torpedo the mammoth $2 billion plan to slide the torrent around the cities, we who live here have pretty much sat back while government leaders have done all the heavy lifting.
Perhaps we count on Moorhead’s and Fargo’s city-centric efforts to keep our front steps dry. Here in Moorhead, we’ve invested $105 million, along with the state of Minnesota, in an 11-mile system of earthen levees that stretches from north of the country club to 50th Avenue South. Two hundred forty-nine homes have been sacrificed to make way. We’ve built 12 new pump stations and 78 stormwater gates over the past eight years. If the city hustles to build clay dikes in front of the 80-some holdouts who punctuate that would-be impervious wall, we should be safe to a crest of 39.5 feet.
Fargo has been just as busy with its downtown floodwall and 20 miles of earthen dikes. Some 200 homes have been bought out there, moved or demolished, with many more still in limbo. South along the river’s twisting oxbows, the same kind of campaign has reduced formerly tiny Briarwood to open fields and is relocating Oxbow. Its goal, too, is to protect to FEMA’s 100-year flood level.
We like what we’re seeing these days. We aren’t required to buy flood insurance anymore (though some of us, prone to cross our fingers, still do). Those new floodwalls look good. On the south side, where we live, we barely remember the neighbors’ homes that lined the riverbank just seven years ago. We’ve come to rather like the open sweep of grassy dike across the street, where their kids so recently played with our own.
Secure, complacent — and saving a little money, to boot. What floods? Our cities have invested a fortune in thwarting the threat of once-in-100-years flooding … and most of us apparently figure we won’t be around long to have to worry about it again.
Except. Our climate is growing warmer, wetter and — yes — wilder. It’s a paradox that, despite the drought to the west, precipitation is trending upward. Horticulturists have bumped us up from growing zone 3 to 4. Storms are stormier. Though winter snows have been scant in recent years, the specter of 1996-1997 — 117 inches — will never fully melt from our imagination.
And now, Houston’s agony again demonstrates what “unprecedented” really means.
All the hundreds of millions already spent building our cities’ walls and dikes should indeed be adequate to protect us from Red River tantrums equal to those we’ve already witnessed. But what of the next?
That’s where the diversion — the megaproject most of us understand only dimly — comes in. It’s been chugging along since 2008, ironically begun a year before the worst flood in F-M history. The numbers are too big for the ordinary mind to really grasp. That goes double for the engineering. Weighing every conceivable alternative, local leaders agree the Corps of Engineers has chosen the only one that provides protection from the degree of disaster that we still can barely imagine. The unusual public-private partnership received formal federal approval a year ago, and the Corps at work on the first steps. Projected completion date: 2024.
If, that is, opponents don’t manage to sink the ship. Critics have attacked from every angle, raising often-valid points that have surely made the present project better. But the controversies have morphed into an impassioned quest that’s only gained momentum.
Everyone loves a good bout of David-vs.-Goliath, and the mission to sink the diversion has always been portrayed in just those terms. Some of the main players on the Goliath side surely have fed the furor — the word “arrogant” keeps coming up. Resentment squirts its bile in many directions: town vs. rural, wealthy vs. down-to-earth, small towns vs. the not-so-big cities that pass for a metropolis in these parts. But let’s examine the problem with how roles in this epic drama have been cast.
Take a closer look at what critics portray as the forces of evil. What I see right here around me in the middle of purported Goliath-land is something quite different than the looming, faceless, heartless force that’s been depicted. Instead of the monolithic villain that anti-diversion challengers feel they face, I see tens of thousands of people just like them. I see families living along this ruthless river who love their homes and need their livelihoods every bit as much as the valiant Davids upstream who are battling to protect their own.
This challenge belongs to all of us. None of us wins unless we press forward together toward a mutually acceptable solution. Watch the news from Houston. Listen to their stories. Feel their fear and desperation. Weigh the overwhelming odds against ever regaining “normal.”
And then let this one overwhelming truth consume you: What we’re seeing in Texas … that could all too easily be us.
Compromise, you guys! Persist in negotiation! Go for the mutual win. We’re all Davids here, and the real Goliath is the Red River itself. Give up a little to gain a lot. That’s where we’ll find our heroes.
It’s not a question of whether we’ll ever face the Red’s full fury again. It’s simply, “When?”