Levees Built, Fargo Awaits Its Fate

Lowell Bottrell paddles through icy floodwater down his neighborhood street as the Red River continues to rise, Friday, March 27, 2009, in Briarwood, N.D. Bottrell is one of the few left in his neighborhood. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Officials in the flood-plagued city of Moorhead, N.D., have asked about one-third of the households in the city to evacuate ahead of the rising Red River, which broke a daunting 112-year high early Friday and breached one of the dikes fortifying the neighboring city of Fargo.

Moorhead city spokeswoman Becky Jahnke said the evacuation of some 2,660 homes are sought on the west side along the river. Moorhead is home to Concordia College and several other colleges.

The Red 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. It was expected to 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 feet 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.

President Barack Obama sent the acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Nancy Ward, to Fargo. The federal government this week announced a disaster declaration for North Dakota and parts of neighboring Minnesota. Obama spoke to the governors of both states and Fargo's mayor, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday.

Officials were adding 800 members of the National Guard from North Dakota and South Dakota to patrol dikes for breaches, on top of the 900 troops already in place, Fargo's mayor said.

Authorities 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 Moorhead 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.

Track the water level of the Red River at Fargo, N.D.
In Moorhead, a third of the households - 2,600 - were told to seek higher ground, and the Coast Guard has performed more than 100 rescues across Moorhead and Fargo in the past few days, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.

"If we go down, we're gonna go down swinging," Walaker said. And it was easy to see what he meant, reports Reynolds: 80,000 volunteers, men, women, and children, working day and night in an assembly line filling millions of sandbags.

Reylonds asked volunteer Bruce Koke what his job was. Koke's reply: "Whatever they tell me."

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
(Left: Helen Foss is helped off of a U.S. Coast Guard airboat after being rescued from her flooded home as the Red River continues to rise, Friday, March 27, 2009, in Briarwood, N.D.)

Molly Wanner was there with her 10-year-old son Jacob. "You gotta try to keep positive and just keep praying," Wanner said. Jacob said he thought his help was making a difference.

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."

Sen. Byron Dorgan also said that Northwest Airlines was sending two jetliners to move patients from hospitals to safer areas.

Fargo Police Sgt. Ross Renner said eight people (including a CNN journalist) were arrested for standing on top of sandbag levess in the Fargo area. He said officers made the arrests Wednesday and Thursday after seeing people (some of whom were apparently taking pictures or shooting video) climb onto the dikes.

Cold Weather Both Helps And Hurts

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.

(National Weather Service; ESRI)
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.

This morning wind-chill in Fargo was 6 degrees below zero, reports Early Show Weather Anchor Dave Price. Although Fargo has had a virtual army of volunteers, it would likely have had many more if not for the extreme cold. The cold also freezes sandbags, making them into frozen rocks that can't seal out water and need to be broken up with baseball bats Price reports.

On the other hand, the cold is actually keeping a bad situation from getting worse. There's still plenty of snow and ice in the Red River valley that, for now, is not melting and contributing to the flooding.

And the cold is complicating Coast Guard rescues, making hypothermia a constant danger.

At one point along the river, Price said, the current water flow is nearly 300,000 cubic feet per second - 50 times its normal volume of just 600 cubic feet per second.

Breach In Levee

Just after 2 a.m. Friday, residents in one neighborhood were roused from sleep and forced to evacuate after authorities found a significant leak in a dike. Police Capt. Tod Dahle said that while water wasn't rushing to overtake the neighborhood, the integrity of the dike was in question.

"It's not like there's a wall of water going through," he said. "It's just a significant leak."

Fargo spokeswoman Karena Lunday said it was the only overnight breech and crews would start working to patch it later Friday morning.

Officials ordered the evacuation of one neighborhood and a nursing home in Fargo after authorities found cracks in an earthen levee built to protect the area from the threat of the rising Red River.

Officers were going door-to-door to the roughly 40 homes in the River Vili neighborhood and were evacuating Riverview Estates nursing home. Authorities also called for the voluntary evacuation of about 1,000 people who live between the main dikes and backups in various parts of the city. That evacuation could become mandatory, officials said.

"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.

Dick Bailly, 64, choked up as he looked out over his backyard dike.

"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."

Meanwhile, crews have set up about 12 backup levees around Fargo in case there are breaks.

Haley Boyd of Moorhead, Minn., said, "I don't see any reason to give up until you have to, until you see water coming in your house, I mean, you keep fighting. You see leaks and you say, we've got to fill those leaks, you know? "

But Price says that residents are fighting a losing battle at this point. Case in point: Markers designed to show how far water rose in 1997 are now under water.

Since the floods of 1997 that devastated Grand Forks, the Army Corps of Engineers has spent $325 million to control the Red River, Reynolds reports. But no one planned on a surge like this.

(AP)
(Left: Officials patrol between Moorhead, Minn., and Fargo, N.D., March 26, 2009.)Tracey Frei and her daughter, Elizabeth, had to leave their home in Fargo because of the flooding - a house that was rebuilt after the '97 flood - and said that the struggle to hold back the river has been "exhausting and tiring and quite an ordeal for a lot of people here."

Appearing on The Early Show, Frei said that she was shocked that an earthen dike meant to protect against a hundred-year flood may be useless just 11 years after the last major flood.

"Who would have thought that it would have come so soon again," she told Early Show anchor Harry Smith. "So it was very sad. It's the house that I grew up in, and then I raised my children in. So it has a lot of meaning, a lot of memories. In the end, it is just a house. And we move on. But it was a sad day yesterday."

Her daughter Elizabeth said that the shock of losing their home is just settling in. "It occurred to me probably yesterday afternoon that all of this was really real," she said. "And it's kind of just a nauseating feeling, just knowing that, you know, that your house is gone.

"I saw the amateur footage, and there's three, four feet of water in my living room where I was just there, you know, 24 hours ago. So yeah, it's sinking in. And it's sad. Like my mom said, we're all really sad about it. But also, we're just really happy - I mean, we all got out okay. It could have been a lot worse."

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 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.

Officials said more volunteers were needed to help a low-lying township in a desperate fight to save 500 of its 550 homes. A few homes had already flooded, Oakport Township Chairman Greg Anderson said.

Soon the rising water will leave few areas where it's possible to sandbag, Anderson warned.

Back in Fargo, in the Fargodome, where a sandbag-making operation was working furiously, public works official Bruce Grubb was struck by the variety of people helping out.

"Any time you see Bison football T-shirts and Sioux hockey T-shirts working side-by-side and smiling, we've really come together," Grubb said, referring to students from North Dakota State and its rival, the University of North Dakota.
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