Grand Forks and Fargo put Cedar Rapids' flood recovery in perspective

Recovery in each community has parallels to Cedar Rapids' effort at five year mark

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CEDAR RAPIDS -- North, to Grand Forks.

That’s where local leaders flew in June 2008 in the first few days after Cedar Rapids’ flood disaster to try to divine what the North Dakota city on the Red River had learned in 1997 from its own historical flood and accompanying downtown fire.

The thought was that “Come Hell and High Water” — the headline in the Grand Forks Herald at the moment of that city’s worst nightmare — might have something to say about Cedar Rapids’ “Epic Surge” — the headline in The Gazette 11 years later.

What Cedar Rapids found at the 11-year mark of Grand Forks’ disaster was a community, about half the size of Cedar Rapids, back on its feet, with a $412 million flood-protection system in place to protect it and East Grand Forks, Minn., on the other side of the Red River.

Kevin Dean, spokesman for Grand Forks’ City Hall today and a local radio news director at the time of the 1997 flood and fire, says the five-year anniversary of Grand Forks’ disaster was not a celebration, but a commemoration — of damage done, scars remaining, what had been accomplished and what hadn’t.

Not a celebration

“That was very different from celebrating,” says Dean, an Iowa native from Carroll and an Iowa State University graduate. “We looked at what we had been able to achieve ... but there was still work to be done. We were still in the middle of (building) permanent flood protection, which was a big thing, to make sure something like that didn’t happen again.”

Grand Forks held a large event to mark its disaster’s five-year anniversary — the city of Cedar Rapids will hold a ceremony Thursday — at a newly created town square in a downtown where fire destroyed 11 buildings at the height of the 1997 flood.

Listening to Dean, the Grand Forks’ story at the five-year point sounds similar to parts of Cedar Rapids’ story. Both cities, for instance, had flood scares between their flood of record and its five-year mark. Cedar Rapids’ scare came at about the five-year mark. Both cities secured a substantial amount of federal money to pay for a large number of property buyouts.

At its five-year anniversary, Grand Forks had nearly completed its property buyout program of 800 homes and 50 businesses.

In Cedar Rapids at the same point, the city was nearing the completion of its buyout program of some 1,150 homes and 156 commercial properties with 73 buyouts — 59 residential and 14 commercial — still in the works, according to the latest city figures.

Grand Forks’ Dean says much of downtown Grand Forks had been rebuilt or was getting rebuilt five years after the flood and fire, but the redevelopment didn’t come without some debate about the sense of reinvesting in a downtown that no longer was the metro area’s major retail center.

Similar sentiment in some places has been heard about the flood-hit downtown in Cedar Rapids.

Dean says the redevelopment of Grand Forks’ downtown has included a mix of offices, government buildings, restaurants and night life with a little retail. The new town square features a farmers market and a stage for concerts, with “Blues on the Red” — the Red River — a popular summertime draw, he says.

“We kind of were able to re-create downtown because you had the opportunity to start from scratch,” says Dean, “but it took longer than five years, and the downtown became sort of a political hot potato. ... There were a lot who, quite frankly, thought it was perfectly fine to let downtown die. ... Yet there were a lot who felt the opposite. ... That it was the heart of the community.”

Flood protection

Where Grand Forks and Cedar Rapids stand apart at the five-year mark is on building a flood-protection system.

Grand Forks’ project — which includes an accompanying project across the Red River in East Grand Forks, Minn. — broke ground in June 2000, three years after the flood with the federal government providing special funding to pay for half the $412 million cost. The states of North Dakota and Minnesota contributed to the project, and property owners in Grand Forks did as well. Each property owner paid a special assessment of $1,600, payable over 20 years, Dean says.

In 2007, he says, Grand Forks celebrated the completion of the system of levees, flood walls, pumping stations and a diversion channel. It is a system that protects to nearly 60 feet of water from the Red River, which is about 5.5 feet above the historic 1997 high of 54.35 feet and 32 feet above Grand Forks’ flood stage.

The Red River climbed to nearly 50 feet at Grand Forks in 2009 and 2011, and Dean says, “It was nothing.”

The first few years after the system was completed in 2007, residents would call as the Red River climbed. “ ‘Are we going to be safe?’ they wondered ... but the system is perfectly capable of protecting us the way it was designed to do,” Dean says.

Fargo’s progress

The story is different a little farther south in Fargo, N.D., as it is in Cedar Rapids.

Flood protection for Fargo and Cedar Rapids, cities of similar size, remains a work in progress.

In the meantime, both did some scrambling this year: Cedar Rapids after an ice jam in the Cedar River in March and then as the river rose above major flood stage by June 1; and Fargo after a forecast said the Red River might climb to the level of Fargo’s worst flood in 2009. It did not.

Cedar Rapids and Fargo — along with the smaller town of Moorhead, Minn., across the Red River — now have flood-protection plans approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Cedar Rapids plan is a $104 million one, which features levees and flood walls that will protect most of the east side of the city from the Cedar River. The Corps’ project for Fargo-Moorhead is a $1.8 billion one, which features levees and flood walls and a 36-mile-long, 20-foot-deep diversion channel around the Fargo metro area.

Pat Zavoral, Fargo’s city manager, and April Walker, Fargo’s city engineer, report that the city already has built some levees and flood walls for the system, at a cost of $57 million, with a combination of state and local funds as the city awaits word on federal funding.

The city of Fargo, they say, approved a half-cent sales tax and then added an additional half-cent sales tax for the project, while the county has added a half-cent sales tax for it as well. The plan calls for the federal government to cover $800 million of the project cost, with local government and the states of North Dakota and Minnesota paying for the rest. The states have agreed to help with funding.

By way of comparison, voters in Cedar Rapids twice — in May 2011 and March 2012 — have turned down an extension of the city’s 1 percent local-option sales tax, which expires June 30, 2014, to help pay for flood protection.

At the same time, city leaders and Cedar Rapids’ delegation in the state Legislature successfully pushed in 2012 for the creation of the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board, with funds to help pay for local flood-protection in communities with a need and matching funds.

Paying for protection

As for the competition for federal funds for flood protection: There is no better place to reflect on the phenomenon of landing on a list of projects to be funded by the federal government than to stand in front of the $182 million U.S. Courthouse, which opened in downtown Cedar Rapids in November.

The courthouse project had languished for more than a decade on a federal courthouse construction list, creeping up the list a bit but never really closing in on reality. Then within a few months, Congress approved special funding for the project when the former federal courthouse, renovated now into City Hall, took on water from the 2008 flood.

The federal list that interests Cedar Rapids and Fargo now is one that consists of those two cities and 20 others, which have flood-protection plans approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and which now are positioned to receive federal funds if Congress makes money available, say Cedar Rapids city officials.

Cedar Rapids sits at No. 8 on the list, though city officials say the spot isn’t a ranking. The metro area of Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., is No. 10 on the list.

Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz says being on the list in and of itself is a giant achievement for Cedar Rapids.

“We’re in an elite group,” Pomeranz says.

On May 15, the U.S. Senate approved the Water Resources Development Act of 2013, which authorizes Corps-approved flood-protection projects for construction. Cedar Rapids and Fargo officials took note.

Cedar Rapids’ Pomeranz and Fargo’s Zavoral note, too, that there is a ways to go. The House of Representatives also must approve a similar bill that authorizes the construction of flood-protection projects, and then the entire Congress must agree to fund them, they say.

Fargo’s Zavoral says not protecting Fargo from floods is not an option. Work goes on, using local and state dollars, until federal money arrives, he says.

“Fargo can’t get branded as a city that has perpetual flooding,” he says. “We have major, major businesses in the community that are relying on protection. ... If we fail once, it will be a $6 billion asset loss. ... So we can’t fail.”  

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