CBSN

N.D., Minn. Prepare For Record Flood

Sandbags are lined up outside a city utility building in Fargo, N.D., Saturday, March 21, 2009, in preparation for what could be record flooding in the Red River Valley. The race to fill 1.5 million sandbags has shifted into high gear with the addition of 225 National Guard soldiers and more cutting-edge equipment.
AP Photo/Dave Kolpack
The race to fill 1.5 million sandbags to fight what could be record flooding has shifted into high gear with the addition of 225 National Guard soldiers and more cutting-edge equipment.

Volunteers were being bused in to Fargo's "Sandbag Central," a city utility building the size of a football field normally used for housing garbage trucks. About 130,000 sandbags were produced on Friday, and the operation went into 24-hour mode on Saturday.

"The first three hours this morning we produced 40,000 bags, which is ahead of yesterday's pace," said Bruce Grubb, Fargo's enterprise director. "So I'm extremely happy with that."

The city on Saturday also was closing the First Avenue North bridge over the Red River for dike construction.

The latest projections from the National Weather Service say the Red River is expected to crest between 37 feet and 40 feet sometime between March 28 and April 1. Officials are nervous about a storm that's expected to drop an inch or two of rain in the Red River Valley beginning on Sunday.

A 40-foot crest is 22 feet above flood stage and about a half-foot higher than the historic 1997 spring flood that left several Fargo residents scrambling to save their homes.

"If we go to 40 feet, we're going to be tested," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Saturday after touring sandbagging operations with Gov. John Hoeven and other state and local officials.

The call for people to help fight what could be a record flood brought a steady stream of volunteers to Fargo's "Sandbag Central," including firefighters, a high school baseball team and a married couple of 51 years.

Don Such, 74, sat on a chair next to a sand pile Friday morning while his wife, Alice, 73, filled bags with a shovel inside the huge city building that normally serves as a parking garage for garbage trucks.

"What's better than to sit on a chair and let your wife do the shoveling? You can't beat it," Don said.

"We think this is the thing to do when our city is in trouble. This is home," Alice said. "The way they are predicting, it's scary."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared a state of emergency Friday in seven counties that border North Dakota: Wilkin, Clay, Marshall, Polk, Norman, Kittson and Traverse counties, and activated the National Guard to help in flood preparations.

In Washington, North Dakota's congressional delegation and governor met with officials of the White House, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Guard and the National Weather Service.

"The wild card is this weather event this weekend and into next week," Sent. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said by phone Friday morning. "The people we met with today assured us this morning that they are prepared to win this fight in every community."

The threat is increasing with a storm moving in from the Pacific by early next week. Pat Zavoral, Fargo city administrator, said the temporary levees are being built to 41 feet or 42 feet.

The city has new equipment to help fill sandbags. Two "sandbag spiders" were set up inside Sandbag Central. The machines, which cost $35,000 apiece, are rated to fill 5,000 sandbags an hour, Grubb said.

"We thought it was a good investment because these 100-year floods seem to be more and more frequent," Grubb said.

Others were filling bags the old-fashioned way, with shovels. That included about 40 members of the Fargo South High School baseball team, whose practice was called off for sandbagging.

"This is our practice now," said Brady Horner, sophomore shortstop and pitcher for the Bruins. "It's good labor. It's a good workout. It also feels great to help out the community. You never know what can happen until it happens to you."

City lawbreakers got a chance to help. Fargo Court Judge Tom Davies offered people who had delinquent fines or outstanding arrest warrants a chance to get them withdrawn if they signed up for sandbag duty.

Federal authorities said they are increasingly worried about the expected flooding along the Red River Valley in the coming days, and have launched an unmanned aircraft to survey the region.

John Stanton, director of national air security operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, told The Associated Press that the Predator drone will map a 90-mile long swath from just south of Fargo to the Canadian border, along the river. He said the request for an expanded patrol area for the drone was submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration three days ago, and approved on Friday.

The radar mapping was to begin Saturday for a pre-flooding assessment, and will continue until the river has crested and begins to recede.

"This is looking like a terrible year, it may exceed the 1997 flood," said Stanton, pointing to the wide expanse of ice and snow expected to melt in the coming days.

The drone was flown to the state in December, and has been regularly used to patrol the northern U.S. border, in flights that originate at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

In addition to the storm, officials said it would be difficult to predict overland flooding.

"I've talked to folks who have lived in areas for a long time who won't even predict that," said Dave Rogness, Cass County emergency manager. "They say you never know exactly where it's going to come from, or when, or how much."

An aerial tour of the Red River Basin did show positive signs, Walaker said.

"It didn't look as threatening as we've been hearing," he said. "Cautious optimism is the comment I would make right now."

Officials in Grand Forks planned to bring another so-called "spider sandbag" machine to Fargo. The city of Fargo recently bought two of the machines, which can produce about 5,000 sandbags an hour.

"It looks a little 'Star War'-ish in here," Grubb said, looking at the multiple legs that flow sand into bags. "But it's great."

Officials said they are hoping to produce 250,000 bags a day. The North Dakota State University football team was scheduled to join the endeavor in the next few days, Walaker said.

"We're still getting more demand for volunteers than we have volunteers," Rogness said. "This need is only going to increase over the next several days."