Monday, March 23, 2009

How Can You Sleep When the El Zagel Temple is Under Water???

I have been watching the Red River Valley flood news with interest. I lived in the valley for 20 years, 5 in Fargo in the second half of the 1970s, and then the rest in Grafton, about 120 miles north, so it is a lot like hometown news from a distance. Fargo is expecting a river crest around 40 feet, so they are busy sandbagging like crazy. Even CNN is paying attention. They are showing North Dakota on the weather map instead of going straight from Chicago to LA like they usually do, without acknowledging the majority of the country outside of the coasts.

It flooded in Fargo 3 out of the 5 years I lived there, and as an intrepid college student, I spent some cold nights filling and lugging sandbags. The one place I remember in particular had huge windows facing the river to the east, and while we froze and sweated and lugged and puffed we could see the residents therein having lovely snacks and drinking nice hot coffee, and when we figured out everyone who lived there was inside having a party, we abandoned them for a more worthy venue. What we didn't think about at the time was that they had been living with this mess for weeks and were probably exhausted and perhaps thankful for the break. But dammit, they weren't thankful enough to bring us any coffee or at least step outside the door and give us a wave and say thanks, which would have been nice, regardless of the level of sincerity, so off we went.

The only occupants of a house near the river who made any sense to me were the family of a professor at NDSU whose first floor was basically concrete with roll-up and moveable wall and floor coverings. Move the furniture and throw a few sandbags around the house, and if the river gets in, grab the garden house and a little bleach and you're set to move back in. If I remember correctly his name was Vincent D-something Italian. I'll have to ask Bonnie next time I talk to her.

My friends were a bunch of night owls in the Department of Architecture,and once spring hit I could expect a phone call at any time of the evening or night: "How can you sleep when ____ (fill in the most low-lying landmark) is under water!!!" and off we'd go on Flood Patrol, which usually ended up at Perkins Family Restaurant for breakfast. When El Zagel Temple, the Shriner's lodge, was under water, we knew it was a baaaad flood. When you could stand on the Main Avenue bridge and watch the water literally under your feet, it was a bad flood. The sound of the river and its movement in the moonlight were mesmerising. Add to that the smell of spring at the end of a long, dark, frozen winter and just the general fact of being young and care-free, we were intoxicated with life.

Its probably not politically correct to look at floods so lyrically, but North Dakota doesn't have these flash floods that kill people unawares. Everyone knows these are coming, so they take precautions. Even during the flood in 97 I think only 2 people died, and they went across a bridge they shouldn't have been on and were swept away in the water when the river was coming up rapidly. We might lose stuff here but people are generally safe during floods. And I have to say, I can't really feel sorry for people who have had a major flood every decade out of the last 50 years and still don't a) have a flood control plan; and/or b) have sense enough not to build next to a cranky river on a big giant pan-flat ancient lake bottom.

I don't have a lot of sympathy for people whose pain is self-inflicted, myself included. Fargo needs to consider a flood contingency tax, and if you are stupid enough to build on the river, you put your money in a pot to pay for the cleanup. You could invest it with some nice solid insurance company, and when you need it ... oh never mind. Put your basement right on the bank.

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