Outsmarting a river with a mind of its own

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“For socializing, you can’t beat a good flood,” one of these south Moorhead homeowners told me last night.

Although the annual fight against the 100-year-flood is usually captured with scenes of feverish sandbagging, it actually starts here — meetings and dinners with neighbors as with this one in the home of John Brummer, one of the families I followed in the 2009 flood (along with Donna and Todd Morse, shown on the left). Years of fighting the river have made them more knowledgeable in their effort to outsmart a river with a mind of its own.

When the Red River comes calling in March, it will try to destroy this neighborhood by finding the weak spot among neighbors. Though they spent part of the evening recalling floods gone by, the mission was clear: Get everyone on the same page early. Who’ll talk to the neighbors who weren’t here? Whose garage will be used for the food lines? What’s the latest in sandbag technology? Where will the volunteers come from? When will it start? When will it end?

It will be tough this year. Residents up the street have — on their own — built an earthen dike, making it difficult for other neighbors to tie their traditional sandbag dikes to it. There’s no indication, too, that the earthen dike will be strong enough to withstand the river. Presumably, bad dikes do not make good neighbors.

For now, the Red is behaving. Twin Cities residents probably aren’t used to seeing images like this — a river at peace.

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But there’s nothing to suggest this spring’s flooding won’t be some of the worst ever. It was a wet fall and there’s a lot of snow in the valley. But unlike 2009, this year south Moorhead has plenty of time to prepare.

Still, the residents here have heard the questions from people elsewhere, “Why don’t they move somewhere? Why do they live near the river?”

First, the river isn’t supposed to do every year what it’s been doing recently. To become a problem in this neighborhood, it’ll have to crawl up a very steep hill almost 30 feet higher than it is now.

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Here’s the view today from John Brummer’s house:

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Here’s what it looked like in 2009:

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Despite the laughs present whenever friends get together, there’s a mix of exhaustion and sadness, too. The river is the 800-pound gorilla at the bottom of the hill. The neighbors spend much of their winter worrying about their spring, at least the neighbors who are still here.

South Moorhead neighborhoods are being dismantled. Neighbors are disappearing; they’re taking buyouts for their homes.

It’s leaving long gaps along the river…marked only by the occasional holdout — an elderly man, for example, whose wife died a year or so ago. He doesn’t want to leave the home they shared.

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As each group of homes is moved or bulldozed, a wall goes up. Moorhead is beginning to look like New Orleans’ lower 9th ward in places:

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“How many of you would take the buyout if it were offered?” Donna Morse asked her neighbors Monday night. Almost every hand went up.

It’s their only ticket out of here on their own terms. Houses won’t sell privately. Few people think a long-talked-about river-diversion plan will happen in their lifetime.

So they plan another spring fight, instead.

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