Walaker: No offense meant on ’97 GF flood fight commentsDid Grand Forks “fail” in 1997? Was Fargo “penalized” for its success in containing the Red River that fateful year, waiting hat in hand while federal millions for flood prevention flowed to Grand Forks?
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
Did Grand Forks “fail” in 1997?
Was Fargo “penalized” for its success in containing the Red River that fateful year, waiting hat in hand while federal millions for flood prevention flowed to Grand Forks?
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker touched off something of a storm in the northern Red River Valley on Friday when he told an area Chamber of Commerce forum that his city was penalized in 1997 for its flood-fighting success.
“It’s a longtime process and an expensive process to do what Grand Forks has done” in building a massive new flood protection system, Walaker said, “and the reason that was done is because they failed” in 1997.
The comment, reported on gfherald.com, drew sharp responses from some Grand Forks residents.
“We lost, and he envies us,” J.M. of Grand Forks wrote. “What a jerk.”
The word “failed” seemed especially to rankle.
“Nobody failed,” a woman named Brandi wrote from Denver, dressing that brief riposte with some abusive language (since deleted by site editors) aimed at the Fargo mayor.
From Garrison, N.D., Bradley R. wrote, “What a cruel thing to say.”
In a telephone interview Friday afternoon, Walaker said he didn’t mean the comment to be disparaging toward Grand Forks.
“I didn’t say this in jest or with jealousy,” he said. “I was talking about the process, how because Grand Forks was flooded we were told to stay in line until Grand Forks and Wahpeton get flood protection.
“I’ve never said anything against Grand Forks. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with (acknowledging) failure. You did your best, and you failed. You put up a massive effort, but you were unable to contain the river.
“We came damn close to failing ourselves.”
He called the Grand Forks dike system “a magnificent project” and said he would “be thrilled to have half the project” that was put together after 1997 with massive state and federal assistance.
Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown said he took no offense at Walaker’s comments.
“That river did kick our butts in 1997,” Brown said. “We made a gallant effort, but the river rose too high.
“We recovered, and in the recovery the character of Grand Forks has been well demonstrated.”
Heads held high
The disastrous 1997 flood remains a sensitive issue for people who lived through it, and some — clearly proud of the city’s fight — were quick to challenge what sounded to them like a dismissive remark.
From Larimore, N.D., Marilyn T. cried, “Shame! Shame!” and asked how the Fargo mayor measures failure.
“Is it failure, the thousands of hours residents worked to keep their homes (and) business and didn’t complain? Is it failure, the fact that no lives were lost thanks to the dedicated hours of (first responders, nurses and others) who worked overtime without pay?”
She also cited the “thousands of volunteers,” including people from Grand Forks Air Force Base, who chipped in before, during and after the devastating flood.
“Everyone should hold their head up high and feel proud for the courage and tenacity” displayed during Grand Forks’ flood fight, she wrote.
Paul N. from Grand Forks suggested that Walaker “is already trying to put the blame on someone else when Fargo goes downstream in April.” From East Grand Forks, Shelly G. also argued that the “failed” remark belittled a valiant effort.
“How dare you?!” she wrote. “Our city did not fail. The river took us over.”
Not everybody responding was ready to put Walaker in a dunk tank.
“He’s right,” Joe B. of Grand Forks wrote. “GF was too stupid to plan for the flood correctly. … Then the government gives us tons of money for it!! What a joke. I’d say Fargo has a point. The government rewards idiocy.”
Greg B., also of Grand Forks, counseled restraint.
“I only hope that the people of Fargo don’t have to feel the pain of failure,” he wrote. “I am sure (the mayor) didn’t mean this to be derogatory and that if Fargo has the same crisis we had in ’97, that we, the people of Grand Forks, can be as gracious and helpful as the people of Fargo were to us.”
Walaker, a Fargo native and civil engineering graduate of North Dakota State University, was the city’s director of operations before his election as mayor in June 2006. He spent part of Friday inspecting Lake Traverse and points on the Red River near Wahpeton.
He said the latest flooding forecasts were alarming and should inspire people and communities along the river to cooperate. “Failed” may not have been the best-chosen word in his chamber remarks, he said, but he repeated that he did not mean to discredit Grand Forks’ effort in 1997.
“We came within a whisper of losing a large part of our city in 1997,” he said. “Then we were a staging center for your recovery. You are recovering, your population is back up, you have an excellent flood protection system in place — and I say more power to you.”
Brown echoed those sentiments.
“We have been excellent stewards” of the financial assistance the federal government poured into the city after 1997, he said. “Now it’s time to stand with Fargo” and see that it also gets the protection it needs.
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to email@example.com.