FLOOD FIGHTERS: Fighting water with wordsThere were moments during the Red River flood of 2009, moments when flood fighters watched the river rise to a near-record crest around 50 feet and waited to see how the new Grand Forks-East Grand Forks flood protection system would handle the test.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
Family: Wife Stephanie, son James, 1½.
Home: Grand Forks since 1997.
When not a flood fighter: Public information officer, City of Grand Forks.
Flood fighter duty: Working out of the Grand Forks Emergency Operations Center, providing information to the public and news media.
Flood fighter equipment: Computer, Blackberry, telephone.
Best flood memory: “In 2009, there was all that uncertainty. We had 50 feet of water coming through the channel and we had contingencies in place – evacuation plans, everything – in case there was a problem with the flood control system. But it was easy. We saw that this investment works, and it works well.”
Worst flood memory: “It’s a pre-flood memory, from 1997. I was a senior in high school, and we lived on a farm (by Lancaster, Minn.). Blizzard Hannah knocked out our power for a week: no power to get water to the cattle, no power for the fuel tanks. It was a lot of hard work, and the house got really cold. It convinced me that I didn’t want to be a farmer.”
There were moments during the Red River flood of 2009, moments when flood fighters watched the river rise to a near-record crest around 50 feet and waited to see how the new Grand Forks-East Grand Forks flood protection system would handle the test.
John Bernstrom, a Grand Forks city employee who fights floods with words — words of explanation, reassurance and sometimes warning — remembers taking a call at the Emergency Operations Center. A public information officer, he gathers up his computer and Blackberry and other tools each year a major crest approaches and moves from City Hall to the EOC.
“A guy called, and he ripped into me,” Bernstrom said. “He was ready to tear into whoever answered the phone. ‘The flood protection system isn’t working!’ he shouted. He said he had water in his basement.”
Bernstrom alerted police and other city departments, and a rubber-suited wastewater crew was dispatched to the man’s home.
The crew members came back chuckling. The sheepish homeowner had met them and reported that a child had tried to see how many rolls of toilet paper would go into a toilet.
“In 2009, we didn’t know what might happen with the system,” Bernstrom said. “We knew what was supposed to happen. And then the river crested, and everything worked. So in 2010, another large flood, it was like night and day at the EOC. I wouldn’t say we were laid back in 2010, but there were few calls.
“We’re hoping for that again this year.”
Bernstrom, 32, was part of the first UND class to enroll after the Flood of 1997. After graduation, he worked in sports at WDAZ TV before joining the city’s public information office five years ago. In addition to fighting floods, he played a lead role in the city’s response to the 2010 H1N1 flu scare.
At the EOC, he monitors road closures throughout the county, reminds river gawkers that trekking onto city dikes can bring heavy fines, maintains a flood fight web site, and fields calls from people still not sure whether they should plug drains, buy flood insurance — or yell at him about water in the basement.
Lately, he’s been fielding calls from out-of-state media, including a Winnipeg radio station that wanted to know when Grand Forks would start its sandbagging operation.
“We’re not making any sandbags,” Bernstrom told the caller.
“We don’t need to.”
“What do you mean, you don’t need to!?”
And then Bernstrom explained, with some satisfaction, about the levees and invisible walls and the rest of a system that works, and works well.
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to email@example.com.