Mr. Shaefer moved to higher ground in the north part of the city. Yesterday, the Red was lapping at a sandbag dike in his backyard. “We guessed this place would keep us clear of the river,” he said. “Maybe we guessed wrong.”
Downriver in Manitoba, authorities have taken some of the guesswork out of the Red equation. Starting with the construction of the Red River Floodway in 1962 – informally named Duff’s Ditch for Premier Duff Roblin – provincial governments have consistently taken a longsighted approach to flood protection. The floodway diverts overflow from the Red around Winnipeg. In 37 years, the floodway has been opened 20 times, saving $10-billion in flood damages, according to government estimates.
“It’s an amazing piece of engineering,” said Dr. Schwert, one of North Dakota’s foremost flood experts. “In 1997, if you were in downtown Winnipeg you were oblivious to the fact that there was a flood going on.”
Since 1997, various levels of government in Manitoba have invested more than $800-million to nearly double the capacity of the floodway and erect ring dikes around small towns capable of keeping out 1997-level waters plus .6 metres.
But the political culture in North Dakota resists such solutions.
Earlier this week, one homeowner 15 minutes north of Fargo talked with pride about the flood-protection measures he’d erected with his neighbours. “That’s how it should be,” he said, trudging through knee-deep water inches from flowing into his home. “We don’t need government in here screwing things up.”
North Dakota hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson, and Libertarian Ron Paul nearly beat John McCain in last year’s Republican primary.
“We have a lot of individualism here – that’s just the North Dakota way,” Dr. Schwert said.
(For the benefit of those from far away, this is not the Red River of cowboy lore, by the way.)
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Image of 1997 Red River flood from usgs.gov