Life in the EOC during the Red River Flood of 2009

Submitted By

Theresa Orecchia
Fargo Cass Public Health, North Dakota
February 12, 2014

The last two weeks of the spring of 2009 in Fargo proved to be one for the record books. The winter of 2008-09 had brought record snow accumulations to the region. As March came around, temperatures began to warm quicker than normal; bringing the Red River to levels it had not seen since 1967 and 1997.

Around March 18, the National Weather Service was predicting a record flood of 42 feet, which is about 24 feet above flood stage for the next ten-twelve days, specifically Monday, March 30. The last time the river went over major flood stage was 2007 at just over 30 feet, which was nothing major for the region, but 42 feet in less than two weeks, could be disastrous.

In March of 2009, I was only nine months into my job as the emergency preparedness regional public information officer (PIO) at Fargo Cass Public Health, which is a department under the City of Fargo. My previous work experience included 14 years of radio broadcasting, and agriculture communications. The week of March 16-20, I was taking the Advanced PIO course through the Emergency Management Institute. The course includes an intense mock drill of a disaster. At one of the class sessions during the course, one of the instructors stated “By the end of the year, one of you will have gone through a disaster,” and he was right!

When I arrived back to work on Monday, March 23, the City of Fargo PIO, Karena, called a meeting with PIOs from the Fargo Police Department and Fargo Cass Public Health. The flood was happening so fast that time was of the essence. Karena was already getting calls and interview requests from regional and national media. We needed people at the PIO desk at the emergency operations center (EOC) right away. A 24 hour schedule was quickly put together. Karena would stay downtown with the mayor, city administrator; commissioners and engineers, the rest of us would take our shifts at the EOC. We had a desk for a news release writer, and another separate, very small desk for taking media calls and media monitoring. Karena had called for help from FEMA, and they would be arriving in a few days.

Public meetings between Cass County and City of Fargo leaders occurred twice a day. Leaders and other critical staff were available to do media interviews after the meetings. Those who had cable access were able to watch the meetings from their homes or offices. A flood website was developed which contained all relevant flood information. Karena and I would take turns on who would cover the meetings, and then would create fact sheets to distribute to the PIOs working at the EOC.

On Tuesday evening, March 24, City of Fargo and Cass County leaders began conducting community flood meetings to distribute information about how to protect homes from flood and sewer water, how to build sandbag dikes, and emergency contact information. The first meeting took place in a community that was upstream, which would be experiencing the high waters and crest first. Less than 24 hours after that meeting, on March 25, the citizens in that area were being evacuated because the water was rising at a record pace. I was sitting at the PIO desk at the EOC watching television and seeing people, whom I had just seen the previous night at the meeting, being carried out on airboats and front end loaders. My home was six miles downstream from them, and luckily that morning, I had packed three days worth of clothes, just in case I would not be able to return home. That afternoon, my husband called me at the EOC, telling me that water had taken over the roads to our house.

Back at the EOC, the amount of media calls increased, they wanted to talk to three people, The Mayor of Fargo, an engineer, and a solid waste manager, who was now in charge of sandbag operations at the Fargodome. Luckily, the Mayor was very open to doing interviews, especially early morning broadcasts with national media such as The Today Show; but scheduling the mayor was tricky. When he was not doing interviews, he was at briefings and public meetings, and trying to get some sleep in between. We were calling him in the middle of the night, and had to call him again to make sure he was still able to make the interviews. Since his schedule was always changing, it became difficult to schedule interviews, or try to reach him directly. The engineers were also busy trying to construct sandbag dikes and earthen levees. We would put in calls for interview requests, and they did the best that they could to accommodate them, but their first priority was protecting the city.

The FEMA PIOs arrived on March 26, and were quickly put to work at the media desk, taking phone calls and monitoring media reports. During the day, we would have two or three people at the media desk, and one person at the news release desk, who would also take media calls. At night, we would have two at the media desk, and one person on call for news releases. We had a total of six local PIOs, and two FEMA PIOs on a 24 hour schedule. The media continued to bombard us with interview requests with the Mayor, engineers, public works managers, volunteer coordinators, the latest river levels and sandbag counts. They also wanted to know where they could set up their trucks to get the best shots of the river and volunteers putting down bags. I was writing news releases for everything being affected by the rising waters: street closings, septic and sewer information, sandbag volunteers, special needs services, neighborhood meetings, etc. At night, I would continue to attend neighborhood flood meetings, while Karena would attend the evening leader meetings and give us an updated fact sheet for the overnight shift. I was able to sleep at the EOC in a co-workers office that became a makeshift sleeping quarters for other health workers who were now working around the clock on evacuating health care facilities in danger of potential flooding.

With the scale of this disaster and the limited number of PIOs, we were working in shifts of 12-14 hours, sometimes even longer. Since I was now “living” at the EOC, I was able to work my shifts, and fill in if others needed to leave. The EOC had representatives from Metro Area Transit, Fargo PD, Fire, Health, Public Works, Emergency Management and Planning departments, the National Guard, Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the National Weather Service. Across the hall was the Cass County EOC with representatives from the sheriff’s office, county engineering, and their emergency manager. In make-shift offices down the hall were the volunteer call center and an amateur radio group. Having all these representatives in one building made it easier to find the correct representatives to answer media questions.

The river finally crested the morning of March 28 at 40.83 feet. Once the water began to go down, so did the amount of calls being taken at the PIO desk. As the days followed, the back-up PIO’s were able to go back to their regular duties within the city, and the FEMA PIO’s were able to go home. Karena and I were able handle the PIO duties from our respective City offices. As the activities from the Flood of 09 were winding down, a novel flu virus called H1N1 was winding up….but that’s another story.

Fargo Cass has implemented the following changes based on lessons learned during the Flood of 09:
  • Plans have been created that will give the media, especially local media, what they need, while allowing flood fighters to do their job. One person will be in charge of scheduling interviews with the Mayor; as well as setting hours when the Mayor is available.
  • Engineers will now have set times when they are available, and will be at specified locations, so that the media can get footage of dike and levee construction.
  • A representative from the engineering office will be at the EOC and help with scheduling interviews with engineers in the field.
  • The new, larger PIO desk at the EOC now includes its own set of television screens to monitor information.
  • Our PIO pool now includes the library and fire department PIOs.
  • To avoid the need to drive down to city hall for meetings, an interactive video network was installed that would allow the EOC staff to attend the meetings and exchange information.

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