- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

FARGO, N.D. (AP) | Thousands of shivering, tired residents got out while they could and others prayed that miles of sandbagged levees would hold Friday as the surging Red River threatened to unleash the biggest flood North Dakota’s largest city has ever seen.

The agonizing decision to stay or go came as the final hours ticked down before an expected crest Saturday evening, when the ice-laden river could climb as high as 43 feet, nearly 3 feet higher than the record set 112 years ago.

“It’s to the point now where I think we’ve done everything we can,” said resident Dave Davis, whose neighborhood was filled with backhoes and tractors building an earthen levee. “The only thing now is divine intervention.”

Even after the floodwaters crest, the water may not begin receding before Wednesday, creating a lingering risk of a catastrophic failure in levees put together mostly by volunteers.

National Guard troops fanned out in the bitter cold to inspect floodwalls for leaks and weak spots, and residents piled sandbags on top of 12 miles of snow-covered dikes. The freezing weather froze the bags solid, turning them into what townspeople hoped would be a watertight barrier. Hundreds more Guard troops poured in from around the state and neighboring South Dakota, along with scores of American Red Cross workers from as far away as California.



Homeowners, students and other volunteers filled sandbags in temperatures that barely rose into the double digits.

The river swelled Friday to 40.67 feet - more than 22 feet above flood stage and beyond the previous high-water mark of 40.1 feet in 1897. In one flooded neighborhood, a man paddled a canoe through ice floes and swirling currents.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker cautiously expressed hope that the river would stay below 43 feet - the limit of the reinforced dikes. Mr. Walaker said there was not enough time to build the levees any higher.

Fargo escaped devastation from flooding in 1997, when Grand Forks was ravaged by a historic flood 70 miles to the north. This year, the river has been swollen by heavier-than-average winter snows, combined with an early freeze in the fall that locked a lot of moisture into the soil. The threat has been made worse by spring rains.

“I think the river is mad that she lost the last time,” said engineer Mike Buerkley, managing a smile through his dark stubble as he tossed sandbags onto his pickup truck after working 29 straight hours.

About 1,700 National Guard troops helped reinforce the dikes and conduct patrols for leaks. Police restricted traffic to allow trucks laden with sandbags, backhoes and other heavy equipment to get through.

Guard member Shawna Cale, 25, worked through the night on a dike, handing up sandbags that were 30 to 40 pounds and frozen solid.

“It’s like throwing a frozen turkey,” said sister-in-law Tawny Cale, who came with her husband to help with the sandbags and then to help Shawna Cale move her valuables as she evacuated.

“When it hurts when you lift your arms, you have to stop,” Shawna Cale said.

City Administrator Pat Zavoral said the cold firms up the bags, strengthening the dikes. “If you lay loose bags and now they’re frozen, they’re like a frozen ice cube. It’s good shape.”

Authorities said they were keeping about 300,000 of the 3 million sandbags they had Friday in warm buildings for use as needed. Sandbags that are already frozen when piled onto a dike do not fit together snugly.

But the freezing weather actually helped stave off worse flooding; officials said the river was rising more slowly because the freezing conditions prevented snow from melting.

The White House said it was monitoring flooding in North Dakota and Minnesota, and President Obama has dispatched the acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the region. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama has personally spoken with the governors of both states and with Fargo’s mayor.

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