North Dakota Prepares for Major Spring Floods Along Red River

March 17, 2009

Emergency management officials in Fargo and Grand Forks are ordering pumps, topping off levees and planning dikes after forecasters predicted record flooding this spring along the Red River Basin.

“The magnitude of the expected flooding has not been seen in several years,” the National Weather Service said in a statement Friday. The region is still digging out from a blizzard earlier this week that dumped 10 inches of snow in Fargo.

Gov. John Hoeven issued a statewide disaster declaration to help activate state resources and pave the way for federal aid. He said he has asked for help from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“This is not the March madness we had in mind,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Friday, referring to the possibility of record flooding as snow thaws in the basin that includes eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

Forecasters predict the Red will crest in Fargo at more than 35 feet. Flood stage is 18 feet.

“I am surprised, but they know more about it than I do,” Walaker said. “In my mind, we were probably talking about 35 and a half, maybe 36 feet. I’ve got a couple of friends of mine who are hydrologists who say we need to get ready for something above 40 feet.”

Tuesday’s blizzard and above-average snowfall over the winter has set the stage for the flooding.

“Obviously if we have a nice gentle melt that extends over a period of time, and we can avoid any significant precipitation, that will help the outlook,” said Mark Ewens, a weather service spokesman. “But we have a higher than normal risk of having above-normal precipitation.”

Cities along the river already have declared flood emergencies to free up resources for flood fighting. Fargo has been planning a dike to protect City Hall and has ordered pumps to shore up low-lying areas.

In Grand Forks, the weather service projects a crest of around 50 feet, with a 10 percent chance it will top the 54-foot level reached during the 1997 disaster that swamped the city. Flood stage in Grand Forks is 28 feet.

The 1997 disaster led to the building of a huge dike system to protect Grand Forks from another flood of such magnitude. The city of Fargo is still wrestling with ways to protect the city’s south side.

“There has been a honeymoon since the 1997 flood, and we didn’t get done what we needed to get done,” said Walaker, who is hoping to get federal and state help for a proposed $161 million flood control project.

In Grand Forks, spokesman Kevin Dean said the city is topping off levees in two areas with about 3 feet of clay as a precaution, because those areas are inaccessible to trucks when the ground thaws.

Despite the increased protection since 1997, “any time you talk about a flood crest in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in excess of 50 feet, it raises the anxiety level,” Dean said.

Snow around the Sheyenne and Abercrombie rivers has more water in it than the snow in Grand Forks but those rivers feed into the north-flowing Red, “and it’s all going to come our way,” Dean said. City officials are confident but watchful, he said.

“If we had a flood event similar to 1997, this (dike) project is designed to handle that type of a flood,” Dean said. “We are confident that it will do the job that it’s intended to do.”

In Washington, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued an advisory Friday urging people in the Midwest to prepare for spring flooding by testing emergency plans and communication and finding the nearest shelter.


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