Fargo's deputy mayor gave the all-clear sign Wednesday when he scrapped his yellow safety vest to mark the crest of a spring flood that while ultimately docile had residents heaving thousands of sandbags and workers building miles of clay levees for the fourth time in five years.
Starting with the record-setting flood of 2009, Tim Mahoney has been donning the vest on the first day the Red River spills its banks. He takes it off when the water stops rising, as apparently happened Wednesday when the Red leveled off at about 33 feet, which is 15 feet above flood stage but at least 5 feet below earlier predictions.
"It's a good thing. He needs a shower," joked Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, the man who first told Mahoney to wear the vest as a badge of honor for a community beaten down but not defeated by chronic flooding.
As hundreds of city, county, state and federal employees worked to tame the country's "little river that roars," as labeled by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gen. John Peabody, it was Walaker, Mahoney and City Administrator Pat Zavoral who once again took center stage.
Each of them takes on a different role in flood season. In corporate terms, Walaker is chief executive officer, Zavoral is chief operating officer, and Mahoney is vice president of marketing and communications.
"Pat has his connections, Denny has his connections, I have my connections," Mahoney said. "It works pretty well."
Walaker, 72, the city's former public works director, is clearly the voice of Fargo, for better or worse. During the 2009 flood, Walaker denied a request by federal authorities to evacuate the city because he thought the crest estimate was overstated. He was right.
During this year's flood, he bristled at complaints that the city should have waited before ordering emergency levees, even though the National Weather Service warned of a record-setting event.
"They all become experts," Walaker said. "You can't believe how many times I get stopped throughout the day by people who tell me the water is not going to get to a certain level."
A zealous advocate not only for the city but for a proposed $2 billion Red River diversion project, Walaker has angered opponents of the channel and some state lawmakers with comments that upstream residents found to be callous. Zavoral returned from one legislative hearing with a message for mayor, who had made a half-dozen trips to Bismarck.
"They told Pat they didn't want to see me out there again," the mayor said.
Fargo Republican Sen. Tony Grindberg, who worked on securing $450 million from the state for the diversion, said it was a difficult issue that needed compromise.
"His heart is in the right place," Grindberg said of Walaker. "Folks need to work together and that includes spending time working through the differences with the upstream coalition as well."
Page 2 of 2 - This leads to Zavoral, 65, whose father was a civil service director who led a major flood fight in East Grand Forks, Minn., in 1966. He works behind the scenes during each flood to keep city departments on track and sets the agenda for each day. He said he leaves it up to Walaker, Mahoney and other elected officials to "make the tough decisions."
Zavoral also has acted as mediator for diversion discussion and carried the issue for the city, Walaker said. In the end, Zavoral and Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo were left lobbying for the channel, which still needs federal authorization before it can move forward.
"In the long run, what we've seen is language we can live with it and it got strong support from both sides of the aisle and both houses," Zavoral said of the water bill. "Making legislation is like making sausage. But it got done."
It was Zavoral who came up with the idea of holding daily public briefings when the river reaches major flood stage, at which time city, county, state and federal officials give televised updates. Mahoney, 63, a fast-talking master of one-liners, tries to break up some of the tension during those meetings by cracking jokes.
At Wednesday's public meeting, city officials presented Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar with a personalized Fargo flood vest. Mahoney joked that Klobuchar, a former county prosecutor, needed the vest to distinguish her from county prisoners who were sandbagging alongside her earlier in the flood fight.
"However, when she did do the sandbagging she did see somebody there who she had put in prison," Mahoney said.
Mahoney said he purposely tries to lighten the load on a stressful situation.
"I think people want us to be concerned, but not overly worried you're going to lose," he said. "You want a team that thinks they're going to win."
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple told Walaker during Wednesday's briefing that the city's flood fighting prowess has become "almost legendary." This year's flood campaign started when volunteers began to fill more than 1.5 million sandbags at a city warehouse, all but about 100,000 of which went unused.
"To have everything break our way like it has in here the last week or so is just a joy as far as I'm concerned," Dalrymple said. "I know what it's like to go the other way on you, like it did every day a couple of years ago. This is a lot better."