Fargo Mayor Takes Fight to Flood

For flood-threatened Fargo, N.D., Mayor Dennis Walaker is the right man at this wrong time.

Walaker, 68, is now at the center of this city's fight for survival. In recent days, he's been mobilizing residents, briefing the media, consulting with North Dakota's governor and answering calls from the White House.

"We haven't won this thing yet," said Walaker. "If we fail, we're going to go down swinging."

Walaker grew up near Fargo, is a civil engineer and knows firsthand the Red River's wrath. He was Fargo's operations manager in 1997, when the river rose quickly and the city waged an all-out battle to contain the waters.

"Well, I guess my attitude in this whole process has been very simple, that we are going to win," Walaker told ABC News in April 1997.

Win Fargo did. It was spared the worst of the flooding, thanks to a massive sandbagging effort that Walaker helped organize.

But that 1997 crest was lower and shorter-lived than the current Red River swell.

"In 1997, I thought it was going to be the benchmark for the future, and now it's history. [The 2009 flood] is going to be the benchmark for the future," said the first-term mayor.

Fargo's Towering, Soft-Spoken Mayor

A towering figure, Walaker is soft-spoken, but his words have at times drawn fire. He recently said the nearby city of Grand Forks "failed" when it was ravaged by floodwaters in 1997.

Following that disaster, Grand Forks received hundreds of millions of dollars for new, state-of-the-art levees, while Fargo was largely ignored.

"We were basically told to get to the back of the line because of the success [in fighting the river]," said Walaker. "It's time to provide some permanent flood protection for the city of Fargo."

But that's a job for tomorrow. Today, Walaker is focused on keeping people safe. Most residents have given him high marks this week.

"Mr. Walaker has done an absolutely outstanding job managing us, Fargo, through this crisis," said Fargo resident George Sinner.

Fight Against Flood Is Personal

Walaker's own mother was forced to evacuate her nursing home. For the mayor, this fight is clearly personal.

"Emotions, high emotions," said Walaker about the city's flood-fighting efforts. "It's extremely humbling."