- The Washington Times - Friday, March 27, 2009

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - The rising Red River broke a 112-year record early Friday and breached one of the dikes fortifying the city, but the mayor pledged to “go down swinging” as he called for more evacuations and additional National Guard troops to prevent a devastating flood.

The river swelled to 40.32 feet _ more than 22 feet above flood stage and inches more than the previous high water mark of 40.1 feet set in 1897. The National Weather Service said it could crest as high as 43 feet on Saturday. Fargo’s main dike protects the city at the 43-foot level.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker says the city has no plans to build the dike any higher. He says officials believe the Red River will crest at between 41.5 and 42 feet, and there wasn’t time to raise the dike again.

“We’re not going to proceed to take it to 44. Is that a gamble? We don’t think so,” Walaker said.

Walaker says they are adding 800 members of the guard from North Dakota and South Dakota to patrol dikes for breaches, on top of the 900 troops already in place. They toiled in harsh conditions, with scattered flurries and wind chills below zero for most of the morning.

But officials said the cold weather actually helped. The river was rising more slowly because the freezing temperatures prevented snow from melting.

Officials also asked people to stay off roads to keep streets clear for sandbag trucks and avoid traffic jams that have been plaguing the area. Some of the roads were covered with snow.

Authorities in Fargo and across the river in Moorhead, Minn., expanded evacuations Friday across several blocks of their cities. Officials said 400 people had been evacuated in Fargo, plus more than 100 inmates were taken from the county jail to other lockups in the region. Sen. Byron Dorgan also said that Northwest Airlines was sending two jetliners to move patients from hospitals to safer areas.

“In this is trying and difficult situation it’s critical that Minnesotans pull together and act on advice from emergency responders to ensure everyone’s personal safety,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in a statement to Moorhead residents. “Now is not the time to sit and wait for the worst, it’s time to act to ensure a better outcome.”

In one flood-threatened neighborhood of Fargo, residents placed pumps in their soggy yards in hopes of keeping water out of their homes.

“Last time we said we’d never go through this mess again. But here we are,” Karen Whieland said as she toiled in her soaked front yard, the hum of levee-making backhoes nearby.

Tina Kraft took everything of value or importance in her basement and first floor and moved it upstairs.

“We’ve prepared for it as best we can. We really just have to be ready for our house to be flooded.”

Just after 2 a.m. Friday, residents in one neighborhood were roused from sleep and ordered to evacuate after authorities found a leak in a dike. The leak left the integrity of the dike in question, police Capt. Tod Dahle said, but crews worked hard to repair it.

“We want to go down swinging if we go down,” Walaker said.

The American Red Cross planned to send another 150 people to the North Dakota flood zone to operate emergency shelters. They will join the 85 such volunteers already working in Grand Forks, Bismarck, Fargo and Moorhead, Minn.

Spokeswoman Courtney Johnson said Friday it’s not necessarily a sign that the Red Cross is expecting a disaster. “No one living has ever seen something like this,” she said. “We preach preparedness. We can’t not be prepared.”

Residents in this city of 92,000 had been scrambling in subfreezing temperatures to pile sandbags along the river and spent much of Thursday preparing for a crest of 41 feet, only to have forecasters late in the day add up to 2 feet to their estimate.

The National Weather Service said in its follow-up statement that the Red was expected to crest between 41 and 42 feet by Saturday, but could reach 43 feet. It said water levels could remain high for three days to a week.

The first estimate sparked urgency among thousands of volunteers in Fargo. The second shook their spirits.

“I’ve lived here 40 years and over a 30-minute span I’ve reached a point where I’m preparing to evacuate and expect never to sleep in my house again,” said Tim Corwin, 55, whose south Fargo home was sheltered by sandbags to 43 feet.

Several unusual factors sent the Red River surging to historic heights this year. The winter was unusually cold and snowy, which left a large snowpack sitting on top of frozen ground that couldn’t absorb it. Then a warm snap and heavy rain quickly melted the snow and sent it into toward the river.

And it all happened to a river that flows north. When most rivers in the United States melt, they send the extra water south toward warmer, open water. When the Red breaks up, it sends hunks of ice north into colder water that is often still frozen.

Officials ordered the evacuation of another Fargo neighborhood and a nursing home late Thursday after authorities found cracks in an earthen levee. Residents were not in immediate danger, and water wasn’t flowing over the levee, Walaker said.

Still, officers went door to door to the roughly 40 homes in the River Vili neighborhood and were evacuating Riverview Estates nursing home. Authorities also asked the 1,000 residents who live between the main dikes and the backup dikes in various parts of the city to leave within 24 hours. That evacuation could become mandatory.

In rural areas south of Fargo, crews were rescuing stranded residents. Pat Connor of the Cass County sheriff’s department said 70 people had been rescued by Thursday evening, and he expected that number to grow.

The federal government announced a disaster declaration Thursday for seven Minnesota counties. The entire state of North Dakota had received a disaster designation earlier in the week.

On the Canadian side of the northern-flowing Red River, ice-clogged culverts, ice jams and the rising river threatened Manitoba residents. Several homes were evacuated north of Winnipeg and several dozen houses were flooded.


Associated Press writers Patrick Condon in Fargo and Elizabeth Dunbar in Minneapolis contributed to this report.


On the Net:

Red River at Fargo water levels: https://sn.im/enwgc

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