Record Fargo flood forecast

March 26, 2009 11:56:03 AM PDT
North Dakota's largest city moved to the brink of potentially disastrous flooding Thursday, with earlier optimism fading as officials predicted the Red River would reach a record-high crest of 41 feet by the weekend. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Thousands of volunteers who have been piling sandbags for days scrambled to add another foot to Fargo's dike protection, and official briefings lost the jokes and quips that had broken the tension earlier in the week. Instead, Thursday's meeting opened with a prayer.

"We need all the help we can get," Mayor Dennis Walaker said.

The city of 92,000 planned to distribute evacuation information to residents Thursday afternoon, but at least four nursing homes began moving residents without waiting.

The sandbag-making operation at the Fargodome churned as furiously as ever, sending fresh bags out to volunteers who endured temperatures below 20 degrees in the race to sandbag to 43 feet. Similar sandbagging was under way across the river in Moorhead, Minn., where some homes in a low-lying northern township had already flooded.

As the struggle continued in Fargo, the threat in the state capital of Bismarck was receding. A day after explosives were used to attack an ice jam on the Missouri River south of the city of 59,000, the river had fallen by 2 1/2 feet. At least 1,700 people had been evacuated from low-lying areas of town before the river began to fall.

Crews were rescuing stranded residents in rural areas south of Fargo. On Wednesday, 46 people were rescued by airboat from 15 homes, and Cass County Sheriff Paul D. Laney said early Thursday that he had received another 11 evacuation requests from homeowners.

As the river crept perilously close to houses built along the Red, residents held out hope that the final sandbagging effort would work. The southern parts of the city, mostly residential areas, were seen as most vulnerable, and the city was building contingency dikes behind the main dike in some areas.

Dick Bailly, 64, choked up as he looked out over his backyard dike at the river. Like other residents, Bailly thought the 41.5-foot height that many dikes were built to in recent days would be enough. That was before the National Weather Service, after days of projecting the crest at 39 to 41 feet, settled on the higher number Wednesday.

The river was almost 39 feet by midday Thursday and was expected to crest Saturday. The Red hit 39.57 feet in 1997, and the record is 40.1 feet in 1897.

"It was demoralizing this morning," Bailly said, his eyes welling. "We got a lot of work to do. People have the will to respond, but you can only fight nature so much, and sometimes nature wins."

On a sandbag line behind another house near the river, 65-year-old Will Wright, a veteran of Fargo floods, helped stack bags as water began to seep through his homemade dike. Like others, he said he was confident the dike would hold -- for a while.

"The big concern I have is the river crest staying three to five days and it testing the integrity of these sandbags," Wright said.

The rush to sandbag eliminated a complication caused by the subfreezing weather. Sandbags had gotten frozen earlier in the week, making them difficult to stack tightly together; people were seen slamming bags to the ground to break them up.

Now the sandbags are moving too fast to freeze.

"They are stacking nicely," Fargo spokeswoman Bette Deede said.

Richard Thomas, who lives in a subdivision south of Fargo, said the road leading into his neighborhood has washed out, leaving him stranded. His evacuation plan is a canoe tied to the back of his pickup.

"I got about an hour's sleep last night," Thomas said Thursday morning. "I'm so tired I can't think straight."

Walaker, the mayor, conceded that the city had "changed positions" since earlier in the week. But he said people needed to stay confident.

"We do not want people to go out there and panic," he said. "That is not going to resolve anything."

He said he still believes the city will be OK. "I was asked for odds last night," he said. "I would say we got a simple 3-, maybe 4-to-1 chance of beating this -- and those are good odds at any race track in the United States."

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