Fargo Moorhead Flood Fight: Stand and Defend

The flood fight is on in Fargo/Moorhead as the cities work to stem the flow of the raging Red River of the North. I was in north Fargo this morning (Friday) where crews continue to haul clay and sandbags to bolster dikes and protect critical infrastructure. Fargo Mayor, Dennis Walaker, said this morning that they “wouldn’t go down without a fight” and these two communities are putting up a herculean fight against all that mother nature can throw at them including record flood levels, a snow storm and continued cold temperatures. The two communities currently are in what they are calling a “stand and defend” position – strengthen and monitor existing dikes and levies and protect as much of their community as possible.

I went to Fargo with my 17 year-old Nephew who just last night was sandbagging in north Fargo, and had arrived in Grand Forks at 8:00 am this morning. When he heard I was heading to Fargo he asked “do you need help”? The resilience, energy and concern exhibited by this, and many, of the youth and young adults in this fight has been unbelievable and from my perspective, one of the major stories of this struggle. The overwhelming assistance – from junior and senior high students to the several colleges and their students from throughout the region – has been astounding.

Even former ND Governor and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schaefer is driving a dump truck hauling clay. He said he came across a driver who had been driving for 27 hours straight and Ed figured he could use a break.

The endplay of this flood has yet to be written, but when it is all said and done the residents of Fargo/Moorhead along with an army of students (our best and brightest) will hopefully be able to slap each other on the back and say “job well done”. Stand and defend Fargo … stand and defend.


Here's an amateur video on the flood fight making the rounds on youtube:

Minnesota Public Radio's Bob Collins has been chronicling the story of a few families in Moorhead fighting to save their homes, even after their neighborhood has been evacuated and they've been cut off by a secondary dike.

Fargo Flooding: One more night, one more foot

Late this afternoon the National Weather Service River Forecast Center came out with the announcement that no one in Fargo wanted to hear: the expected crest has risen a foot to 42, and possibly 43 feet. The NWS included the following eerie passage in their official statement:

"The relative uncertainty in forecast models has increased significantly. Record flows upstream of Fargo have produced unprecedented conditions on the Red River. Given these factors, the river is expected to behave in ways never previously observed."

Fargo city commissioners assured the public that dikes were now steady at the 43 foot level, and plans are underway to increase dikes in south Fargo one foot overnight.

Because of massive traffic gridlock after street closures, sand and clay trucks have been greatly slowed this afternoon. Tonight, the city is asking residents to stay in their homes, leaving it up to individual neighborhoods to band together overnight in the south end to try to add the last foot to save their homes.

One neighborhood in Fargo and one in Moorhead are under mandatory evacuation, the largest hospital chain is now evacuating patients, and the city has had to make tough choices in placing secondary clay dikes, cutting off a number of neighborhoods should the water rise.

This battle is not over, and if Fargo and Moorhead can add the last foot and keep the sanitary and storm sewer systems intact they could save the majority of the city. After that, it becomes a problem of maintaining a series of sandbag and temporary dikes over the expected 3 to 5 day high water period.

Check out local photographer Dave Arntson's excellent ongoing photo documentary of the flood fight. One thing I learned working for FEMA during our 1997 flood is that photos matter. Inspired photography helps people process and better understand these tense situations, especially since there is no time to think about what is happening while it is happening.

Why Fargo and the Midwest Rocks

It was eighteen above zero and snow in Fargo this morning. Record high flood forecast on the Red River of the North in the Southern Valley. I went down to Fargo, from Grand Forks (70 miles north), to help my sister’s family empty out their basement. They live in the southern subdivision of Osgood. The blare of heavy equipment resounded throughout the neighborhood as I pulled in, feverishly building an earthen dike as a secondary defense roughly six to eight blocks North of their house. In hurry up mode here, you only move what is irreplaceable – family pictures, cherished belongings of your children when they were young, personal belongings from your life – the rest (TVs, furniture) is just stuff.

As I was leaving the Osgood neighborhood, a steady stream of volunteers marched into the area to bolster the sandbag dikes. Young and old alike working side-by-side to accomplish a greater good – save their community. But for many it wasn’t even their community. Volunteers from throughout the region came to this community to help in its time of need. There is often no reason to be there other than “I heard they needed help”. No questions, no bitching.

Heading to North Fargo, my other sister lives about 8 blocks from the river. The secondary dike there is roughly 2 blocks away from her house. She is heavily involved in emergency preparedness through her work at the local hospital and had her basement cleared out. I was dropping off an emergency generator, submersible sump pump and other supplies hoping that they won’t be needed. Parked in their driveway I saw buses filled with volunteers coming down the clay and snow covered street joined by others walking to the area. Don’t impede emergency vehicles and semis loaded with sandbags – other street traffic was at a minimum.

Why does this region rock? If you saw the resolve of these volunteers, National Guard, Red Cross and emergency personnel and their willingness and ability to work together, help their neighbors and work collaboratively to defend their community you wouldn’t need to ask.

Red River Valley Flooding: In Our Backyard

You may have seen the national media coverage of the flooding in North Dakota and Minnesota. Some of us here at live right in the middle of it. I parked my car this morning at the base of an earthen dike holding back the Red Red River in Grand Forks, ND. Here in Grand Forks we were wiped out by a similar flood and fire in 1997. We evacuated more than 50,000 people at that time and virtually every property in the area was affected.

Since 1997, hundreds of homes have been bought out and $400 million was spent on a dike and diversion protection system creating 2,200 acres of green space and more than 20 miles of trails in our little urbanized area of about 70,000.

This has created a strange feeling - feeling a little useless sitting back and watching the herculean efforts in Fargo while we assemble pieces in the invisible flood wall and listen to officials reassure the public. Many from this area have boarded buses to head down to the Fargo area and help out. Meanwhile, you won't find a drain plug or generator at a store in town.

Here's what's happened so far:

In the western part of the state, Bismarck's situation was alleviated by taking explosives to an ice dam on the Missouri River.

In western North Dakota, parts of small towns including Linton, Hazen, Zap, and Mott have had problems with overland floods.

The most concern now is the rising Red River, making up the North Dakota and Minnesota Border. Thousands of volunteers from around the area have converged on Fargo to help, but the situation is now getting serious. Sandbagging takes a lot of effort and sandbag dikes are subject to failure.

Right now the cities of Fargo and Moorhead are holding strong, but the rural surrounding areas are in trouble.

Here's a video report of the Coast Guard rescuing people from their homes in Oxbow, south of Fargo on Wednesday:

Here's a time lapse video put together by Minnesota Public Radio of the sandbagging efforts at the Fargodome. What's interesting is that this is actually a secodary sandbag filling operation, started up after the huge volunteer turnouts:

And, here's the direct link to the Fargo river guage, updated about every hour. Fargo successfully defended against a flood just under 40 feet in 1997. 41 feet would be a new record, and the region is scrambling to get the protection systems up to 43 feet.

Fargo Flood Gauge

The problem is -- it just keeps on snowing and raining and the projected crests keep rising. The Red River flows north. Our colleague Doug just headed down to Fargo to help protect his sister's house wearing his only possession he has remaining after the Grand Forks floods and fire in 1997: his belt.

We'll keep you posted.

Junk By Any Other Name Would Smell

The Treasury this week disclosed details of their plan to pump $1 trillion into the financial system by removing “Legacy Assets” from the balance sheets of banks. Wading through the multitude of documents and documents, I’m reminded of a remark by Michael Milken in a conversation with Charlie Rose on October 27, 2008 “Complexity is not innovation.”

Since its inception, the plan has been sold to Congress and the media as one with potential positive payoffs for the public coffers. To support this idea, proponents point to the experience of the Resolution Trust Company (RTC) in resolving the Savings and Loan (S&L) Crisis. Back then, RTC took over failing S&Ls – some of which were bankrupted by bad real estate loans made worse when they were forced to sell off below-investment grade bond assets – the by-now-well-known Junk Bonds.

Selling off today’s junk bonds will, I agree, clean up the balance sheets of the banks and make them more attractive to investors and depositors. But the investment in junk bonds now is not going to turn out like the investment in junk bonds then. For starters, the value of the junk bonds then declined as a result of the forced sell-off – Congress prohibited S&Ls from holding junk bonds on their balance sheets. When this supply was dumped on the market, the prices naturally dropped. Selling assets at depressed prices damaged a lot of S&Ls. RTC stepped in near the bottom of those prices to take control of the assets. When credit markets returned to normal, the prices of the junk bonds rose and the investments had positive returns.

Then, junk bonds paid extraordinary rates of return – 10 percentage points above Treasuries at the peak. At that time, a 30-year U.S. Treasury bond could be paying more than 18% interest.

Now, we are talking about junk bonds that we all know are junk – no matter fancy labels like “Legacy.” What rate of return could there be on a mortgage bond – no matter how you “slice-and-dice” it – created when mortgage interest rates were 5-6%? Add to that >our knowledge of the problems underlying these assets and it is increasingly unlikely that there will be any positive payoff for taxpayers in this plan.

On March 25, 2009, Mirek Topolanek, President of the European Union, called the U.S. economic plan “the way to hell.” His concern is that we’ll have to finance these trillion dollar bailouts with borrowing and that will ultimately further undermine global financial markets. He’s right, of course. The public-private partnerships will finance the purchase of the “Legacy Assets” by issuing debt. That debt will be guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the same agency that guarantees our savings accounts at the local bank. Our guarantee is backed by the payment of insurance premiums to FDIC. The guarantee on the debt used to purchase Legacy Assets will be secured by the Legacy Assets – which will be rated by the same credit rating agencies that gave us triple-A rated subprime mortgage bonds in the first place. How can this possibly turn out well? I’m sure Treasury, Federal Reserve and FDIC have good intentions, but as EU President Topolanek says, they may all end up as pavement on “the way to hell.” As NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman said of the new plan, “What an awful mess.”

Geithner is Wall Street's Lapdog

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is on the cover of the April 2009 issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine. In the lead article, “Man in the Middle,” the authors refer to his time at the New York Federal Reserve Bank (FRB) as “experience as a consensus builder.” This overlooks the fact that it was easy for him to get everyone to agree, to build group solidarity, when he simply gave the banks and broker-dealers everything they wanted.

The Primary Dealers, those broker-dealers and banks who have a special arrangement with the FRB for trading in treasury securities, agreed when Geithner let them fail to deliver $2.5 trillion of treasury securities for seven weeks in the fall; they agreed when he let them fail to deliver more than $1 trillion two years earlier; they agreed when he let them fail to deliver treasury securities even after Geithner’s own economists told him it was dangerous. By the way, last year the New York FRB’s public information department prevented those economists from speaking on the record about that research with a Bloomberg reporter.

Now, at a hearing on March 24, 2009 before the House Financial Services Committee, Secretary Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke lectured us on the awesome responsibilities of Treasury and Federal Reserve in the current crisis – without admitting that they had those same responsibilities while the crisis was being created.

In a joint statement from the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve they offer no explanation for their failure to fulfill their “central role … in preventing and managing financial crises.” Rather, they use the fact of that role to require that we accept whatever plan they put before us today as the best and wisest course. To convince us that their plan is the right one, they can all point to the fact that the stock markets rallied (gaining nearly 7% across the board) led by the shares of financial institutions (Goldman Sachs’ shares went from $97.48 on Friday night to $111.93 on Monday – a gain of about 15%).

I criticized the “Public Private Partnership” when it was announced in February 2009. Calling Wall Street’s bad investments “Legacy Assets” doesn’t change the fact that they are “junk.” They could call it “the hair of the dog” because they now want to invest taxpayer money into the same junk investments that started the financial snow ball rolling in the first place.

Just because the stock market rallied doesn’t make this “consensus building” – I call it being Wall Street’s lapdog.

City of Los Angeles Hits the Bottle

While San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was recently chided for his water bottle usage, the city of Los Angeles hasn’t been much better.

It was recently reported that the city of LA spent $184,736 on bottled water in 2008, “despite a mayoral directive that it should not be provided at the city’s expense.”

City officials are encouraged to use coolers or pitchers of tap water for special events, and those that wish to drink bottled water “can do so at their own expense,” said City Controller Laura Chick.

Despite a 2005 memo for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stating that city funds were not to be used on bottled water, certain city departments continued to spend funds on the plastic bottles.

The biggest spenders were found to be Public Works ($69,696), Los Angeles World Airports ($31,429), Los Angeles Police Department ($19,708), General Services ($19,508), Transportation ($14,595), and Harbor ($11,993).

The Department of Water and Power cut their spending down from $31,160 in 2004/05 to $3,419 in 2008, while the departments of Community Development, Commission on Children Youth and Families, Fire, Housing, Library, Neighborhood Empowerment, and Personnel ceased purchases altogether.

Although spending has been reduced, public employees continue to expect the city to foot the bill for their bottled water. Such blatant non-compliance is hard to swallow.

Guessing Which Congressional Seats Change Hands at Census Time

The next official Census isn’t till 2010, but Election Data Services is already predicting considerable impacts on Congressional representation.

Things will be getting bigger in Texas, with four added seats, as well as Arizona, with two. Six states—Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, and Utah—will increase their federal delegations by one district each.

On the opposite end, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania will all relinquish one seat, with Ohio appearing to lose two.

While the redistricting process is in the distant future, it should prove interesting to see how the 2010 Census will change the seating arrangement in Washington.

Layout for the Bailout: $3.8 Trillion and Counting reporters Mark Pittman and Bob Ivry are reporting a running total of the money the U.S. government has pledged and spent for bailouts and economic stimulus payments. The total disbursed through February 24, 2009 stands at $3.8 trillion; the total commitment is $11.6 trillion. The Federal Reserve is providing the largest share at $7.6 billion, followed by the U.S. Treasury $2.2 trillion and FDIC $1.6 trillion. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, combined with purchases of student loans – bailout money that comes closest to directly bailing out Main Street – total only $760 billion – less than 7 percent of the total.

The national debt currently stands at $10.8 trillion — versus an authorized limit of $12.1 trillion.

Last week, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner got into a tiff with the rest of the world (denied by President Obama) by telling them that they should spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on their own stimulus packages.

The U.S. commitment of $11.6 trillion equals 81 percent of U.S. 2008 gross domestic product (GDP). The $787 billion fiscal stimulus is 5.4 percent of GDP. Just the two-thirds of the stimulus that represents new spending (one-third is tax cuts) is 3.6 percent of GDP. Here’s what financial institutions in various countries got from U.S. taxpayers by way of the AIG bailout:


Bailout Benefit


 $   31.1


 $   19.1


 $   16.7


 $   12.8


 $     5.4


 $     2.3


 $     1.1


 $     0.3


 $     0.2


 $     0.2


 $     0.2

Nuts for ACORN

In about a year, the next U.S. Census will be upon us. However, one group participating in the survey is already driving some lawmakers nuts.

In February, The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) signed a partnership with the Census Bureau to “assist with the recruitment of the 1.4 million temporary workers needed to go door-to-door to count every person in the United States.”

While the bureau currently has partnerships with more than 250 national organizations from the NAACP to TARGET, ACORN’s past allegations of fraud have raised the most concern.

The organization – a non-partisan group of low-and moderate-income people – came under fire in 2007, when several paid employees were alleged to have created more than 1,700 fraudulent voter registrations. In 2008, another worker in Pennsylvania was sentenced for creating 29 phony registration forms.

The census is used to “determine distribution of taxpayer money through grants and appropriations and the appointment of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives” and lawmakers do not want any fraudulent computing.

Spokespeople for both ACORN and the Census Bureau have refuted any suggestion that “any group will fraudulently and unduly influence the results of the census.”

Though doubts still remain, the bureau is now focusing on the more than 1 million applicants for 140,000 census taker positions, which is where assistance from organizations such as ACORN becomes needed.

Government accountability is under attack – as it was during the Bush administration, so shall it be under Obama. Given ACORN’s past reputation, confidence in the census itself could come up for question.