Fargo's fight against flooding nears its climax

FARGO, ND City officials and residents were on the brink of declaring victory and ready to move out of flood fighting mode. They hoped for mostly dry weather to speed the river's fall by week's end. The forecast was cooperating, with only a small chance of rain in sight on Tuesday evening.

Still, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker warned residents not to begin dismantling sandbag dikes too soon.

"It doesn't take much to bounce us back," Walaker said. "The river goes up at two to three times what it goes down at."

The river continued inching upward early Sunday toward an expected crest that afternoon of 19 feet over the flood stage, followed by a quick and steady drop. That was good news to residents of North Dakota's largest city, who worried that the Red could stay at its crest for several days, straining temporary levees and sandbag dikes.

As they waited for the crest, Fargo residents turned their attention to cleaning up the debris in low-lying neighborhoods where more than a million sandbags held back waters.

The calm mood stood in stark contrast to last year, when floods along the north-flowing Red River sparked a last-minute frenzy of sandbagging that brought life to a halt and forced thousands to evacuate.

This year, residents in Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., were confident as the river completed a rise driven by the spring thaw of a thick snowpack: They walked their dogs, went shopping and worked out at the gym.

"Last year I was not sleeping well. This year I am sleeping like a baby," said Fargo resident Kevin Pladson, who relied on mounds of sandbags to keep the river away from his back deck in 2009. This year, the water isn't close. "I'm relaxing and watching as much of the NCAA tournament as I can."

Another Fargo resident, Pamela O'Leary, took a stroll in her neighborhood near the river on Saturday with a bag of recyclables in one hand and the leash of her golden retriever, Max, in the other. She said it was a different feeling from this time a year ago, when she and her family were evacuated in the middle of the night.

"Last year we felt like we were fleeing from something, which we were," O'Leary said. "I think we are all in a different state of mind this year. Everyone just seemed really on top of things."

Flooding this year has been limited mostly to areas just along the Red River in Fargo and Moorhead, where 3-feet-high piles of sandbags have prevented the water from reaching homes. Some yards, bike paths and sports fields have flooded -- but without major damage.

In rural areas outside Fargo, more widespread overland flooding from the Red River's smaller tributaries submerged several farm fields and washed out a few roads. On Saturday, the Coast Guard said it helped 10 people in rural areas including five people in a disabled boat who were towed to a car waiting at the shore. None were in any immediate danger.

Officials here said they were better prepared for this year's floods than the ones in 2009. Thousands of volunteers filled and placed sandbags and the Army Corps of Engineers built dozens of clay dikes. After the preparations were largely complete, the National Weather Service lowered its crest prediction several times as below-freezing temperatures slowed the melting of snow and skies were free of major rain storms.

Though Walaker had cautioned against celebrating too early, he was among the city officials handing out cigars at a meeting Saturday. They were told to wait until after Sunday's crest to light them.

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