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Published May 03, 2011, 02:26 PM

Flood fight never ends for Fargo engineer

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Many Fargo employees who helped with a third straight successful flood fight are returning to their regular jobs now that efforts are shifting to cleanup. But for one of them, flooding remains a year-round job.

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Many Fargo employees who helped with a third straight successful flood fight are returning to their regular jobs now that efforts are shifting to cleanup. But for one of them, flooding remains a year-round job.

April Walker is the city's storm sewer utility engineer, which means she manages high water for a living. Fargo Mayor Dennis Walker calls her the floodplain expert.

"This is what I do," Walker said. "When I'm not doing flood fighting, I'm doing flood control."

This year's flood was the fourth-highest on record, well within the city's time-tested flood defenses. Now, Walker and fellow engineers are turning their attention to removing levees, assessing damages and reviewing their work.

"You've got to look at every inch of the city," Walker said.

Walker, who was born and raised in North Dakota, joined the city in 2006 after working for several years as a traffic engineer for the California Department of Transportation. She came back to her home state five years ago to take the engineering job, figuring she could adapt.

"I thought, 'Let's try that,'" Walker said. "Traffic is about flow, water is about flow."

Walker's boss, longtime city engineer Mark Bittner, jokes that he thought he was hiring a traffic specialist.

"She came here with limited experience and quickly got us in line with storm sewer regulations," Bittner said. "She's an expert in technology and usually uses it to the best of anyone on our staff. She also has a calmness under fire and the ability to make decisions rapidly."

Walker found herself doing some fast learning. The city has faced serious floods in four of her first five years on the job.

Two years ago, during a flood fight that turned hectic when the water rose unexpectedly at the end of March, Walker found herself in the middle of decisions that placed some residents on the wrong side of emergency levees. Those were times to turn off the emotion, she said.

"Those were tough lines to draw, but at the same time you look at the greater goal," she said. "The ultimate goal is to save as much as you can. You do what you have to do."

The lines have become easier to draw every year. The city has built up more than 60 miles of permanent levees and bought out more than 75 homes on the flood plain.

"It was a little stressful in 2009," said Kristy Schmidt, a project engineer for the city. "We sat down after that flood and said we can't fight another flood like this. We started to put together a strategy for how we get better at this and how we get out of the sandbag business."

Walker, 37, grew up on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in northeastern North Dakota. Her high school physics teacher, Harriet Howe, said Walker was a "typical all-American girl" who was a cheerleader, class officer and straight-A student.

She also was curious about science. As a young girl she would take apart radios and TVs just to see what was inside, Howe said.

Walker said Howe paved the way for her career by sending her to summer programs to explore different engineering fields. Walker would earn a scholarship to Clarkson University and eventually graduate from North Dakota State University with a degree in civil engineering.

Howe said Walker regularly speaks to American Indian students about reaching their potential.

For now, Walker doesn't see herself doing anything else. As exhausting as flood season can be, she said she still loves the job.

"I would like to see there be a final solution for the area," she said. "It's almost addictive. It's hard to walk away without having an answer in place."

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