Flooding in Fargo, N.D., Eases But Winter Storm Creates More Havoc

March 31, 2009

Just as the Red River began retreating from Fargo, N.D.’s hastily fortified levees, the city’s tired residents stared down a winter storm March 30 that is expected to bring than a foot of snow and wind-whipped waves that could worsen the flooding.

Engineers weren’t worried about the snow, but waves that could crash against the sandbag levees, further weakening them. The higher the wind speed, the higher the threat, Jeff DeZellar, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said.

“The forecast that we saw was 25 mph or more, and certainly that’s enough wind to create some wave action on the river,” he said.

Officials were also quick to point out that they are in uncharted territory.

“The difficulty with an epic flood is nobody has been through it before,” said city commissioner Tim Mahoney. “You can’t ask someone, ‘hey, what’s going to happen next?”

Fargo began winding down the massive sandbag effort Monday that has seen thousands of volunteers turn out around the clock to fill up bags. Fargo filled 3.5 million sandbags, and has a current inventory of 450,000.

Officials jokingly called it the “world’s biggest beach party.”

But the week began in Fargo with serious consequences: Much of the city was shut down, school was called off for the entire week and many businesses kept their doors closed. The city has recommended that non-essential business remain closed until at least Wednesday.

The Coast Guard saw two 500-pound 500-pound propane tanks floating in the Red River in Fargo.

Despite the snow, forecasters are optimistic that by the time it starts melting, river levels will have receded even more. Temperatures are not expected to go above freezing again until Thursday, said meteorologist Mark Frazier.

The Red River dropped slightly to 39 1/2 feet early Monday – less than record highs set earlier but still nearly 22 feet above flood stage. City officials have said they would breathe easier when the river falls to 37 feet or lower, expected by Saturday.

It will be a long week waiting to see if the levees – quickly constructed last week by Fargo’s men, women and children – can hold firm. The National Guard has placed a layer of poly, a plastic-type sheeting, over the levees to help them hold up against high waves.

The flood was caused by an enormous winter snowfall that melted and combined with more precipitation to send the river to record levels. The river flows from south to north through the tabletop terrain of North Dakota, providing few opportunities to drain.

“The place is so flat,” said John Gulliver, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota. “It is totally flat so there’s really no place for the water to go because it can’t leave that quickly. So it just keeps backing up like a bathtub with a slow drain.”

On Sunday, helicopter crews sought to fortify the levees Sunday by dropping 11 one-ton sandbags near vulnerable areas of the dike system. Above them, an unmanned Predator drone from the Grand Air Force Base flew to watch flood patterns and ice floes. North Dakota has more than 2,400 National Guard troops engaged in the flood fight across the state.

The helicopters focused on an area near a middle- and high-school campus that was inundated after floodwaters briefly breached a levee Sunday, causing considerable damage before officials quickly pumped out most of the water.

School officials also frantically raced to rescue a cockatiel, parakeet, tortoises, iguanas and snakes kept at the school as part of its science program.

Mayor Dennis Walaker called the rescue at the school a “wakeup call” and a sign of the type of flooding that could happen at any time in the coming week.

“The main event is right now, while we have this higher water. And it ain’t over till it’s over,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy. “And it ain’t gonna be over until several days from now.”

While officials say they have limited the damage to a small number of homes within Fargo’s city limits, several outlying rural areas have seen significant flooding. Cass County sheriff’s deputies toured some of these areas Sunday in giant National Guard vehicles, offering assistance to stranded residents.

They encountered a woman whose prescription drugs were about to run out, people who trudged out of their homes in waders and a couple who gladly got a lift out of the neighborhood on the Guard truck. All the while, huge sheets of ice floated over people’s yards and lawn furniture and children’s toys could be seen stacked up behind sandbag lines.

Public works officials were closely watching to make sure water and sewer systems remained safe. Fargo’s water and sewer plants are right next to the river, and are protected by a secondary dike system.

“If we lose water and sewer, the city is uninhabitable,” said Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral.

Moorhead, a city of 30,000 directly across the river in Minnesota, also was fighting to hold back the river. A husband and wife had to be rescued by boat from their home after they became trapped on the second floor.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said he was concerned but still optimistic about how long his city’s dike could last against the pressure of the river water.

Flooding statewide was blamed for two deaths, in central and western North Dakota, in what health officials said were apparent heart attacks brought on by flood-prevention exertion.

Fargoans gathered Sunday at several different church services, praying in thanks for the city’s luck so far and seeking protection in coming days.

“At a time like this, we need to call on God’s providential assistance,” said pastor Bob Ona of Fargo’s First Assembly of God church. “All of you have been heroic in your efforts. All of you have been pushed past the wall of weariness, exhaustion and numerous frustrations in order to do the right thing – help people in the name of the Lord.”

“This is the bigger picture,” parishioner Mandy Johnson said as worshippers filed into the hall. “This is something the river can’t destroy.”

Associated Press Writers Juliana Barbassa, Jim Suhr, Patrick Condon and James MacPherson in Fargo and Scott Bauer in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

On the Net:
Red River at Fargo water levels: http://sn.im/enwgc

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