- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2009

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - The National Weather Service has raised its Red River crest forecast at Fargo to as much as 43 feet as North Dakota’s largest city struggles to protect itself from potentially disastrous flooding.

Forecasters had been predicting a crest of 41 feet by Saturday afternoon at Fargo. The new guidance issued Thursday is between 41 and 42 feet, but the weather service says it could go as high as 43 feet.

Fargo has been rushing to raise its dike protection to 43 feet. Thousands of volunteers in the city of 92,000 have been piling sandbags for days.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

FARGO, N.D. (AP) _ 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.

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 unveiled a contingency evacuation plan Thursday afternoon, but at least four nursing homes already had begun moving residents by then.

“A few of them said they didn’t want to go. I said I’m going where the crowd goes,” said 98-year-old Margaret “Dolly” Beaucage, who clasped rosary beads as she waited to leave Elim Care Center.

“I’m a swimmer,” she said, smiling, “but not that good a swimmer.”

The sandbag-making operation at the Fargodome churned as furiously as ever, sending fresh bags out to an estimated 6,000 volunteers who endured temperatures below 20 degrees in the race to sandbag to 43 feet. Leon Schlafmann, Fargo’s emergency management director, said he was confident they would succeed by the end of Thursday.

“I was skeptical as far as volunteers coming out today, but they’re like mailmen,” Schlafmann said. “They come out rain, sleet or shine.”

Schlafmann also said he is confident the dikes will hold even through several days of high water. “We might lose a neighborhood or a few homes, but we won’t lose the whole city,” he said.

Similar sandbagging was under way across the river in Moorhead, Minn., where some homes in a low-lying northern township had already flooded. The city was setting up a shelter at its high school after calling for voluntary evacuations in a southern section.

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 11 more 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.

In Moorhead, both entrances to the Crystal Creek development were flooded, leaving Deb and Scott Greelis thinking about how they and their kids _ ages 6, 2 and 6 months _ could get out if things get much worse.

“We are pretty much stuck in here,” Deb Greelis said. But she said they could haul the kids in a sled to a nearby highway on higher ground if they need to evacuate.

On the Canadian side of the Red River, in Manitoba, ice-clogged culverts, ice jams and the rising river also threatened residents. At least 40 homes were evacuated in communities north of Winnipeg and several dozen houses were flooded as water spilled onto the flat landscape.

“We’re in for probably the worst two weeks that this community has ever seen in its entire existence,” said St. Clements Mayor Steve Strang.

The region’s emergency services coordinator, Paul Guyader, said water levels in the area were dropping but residents are not letting their guard down: The Red River crest threatening North Dakota isn’t expected to arrive in Manitoba for another week.

Fargo’s 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.

The city said that if there is a levy breach and an evacuation is necessary, residents will be notified via sirens, an automated phone recorded message system and emergency broadcasts.

Walaker, the mayor, conceded that the city’s optimism about holding back the flood waters had dimmed 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.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide