With a million sandbags at the ready, Red River flood fight turns to waiting for weekend crest

By Dave Kolpack, AP
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sandbags on hand, Red River area waits for flood

FARGO, N.D. — Schoolchildren, parents and hundreds of residents have spent days packing and stacking sandbags to protect their cities against the rising Red River. The National Guard is in place, keeping watch over the water. Dike builders are finishing last-minute work.

Now comes the difficult part for residents of Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., who must wait to find out if all of their efforts are enough to hold back the water.

“It’s hard to tell how this one is going to end up,” Ed Farley said after he and other volunteers wrapped up construction of a sandbag dike behind his family’s home in south Moorhead. “You’ve always got some concerns.”

Volunteers filled their 1 millionth sandbag Wednesday as the river rose above 30 feet — considered major flood stage — on its way to an expected crest of about 38 feet Sunday that could swamp roads and threaten some neighborhoods.

“I’ve only slept a couple of hours since Monday,” said Farley, 57, a farmer from Felton, Minn., who sported head-to-toe mud and a three-day beard. “I figure I probably won’t be able to shave for quite a while. It grows fast when you’re working.”

Officials, meanwhile, exuded confidence.

“Usually in normal floods there’s one day of chaos. We have the potential for not having that this year,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said. “Are we optimistic? Absolutely. We’re optimistic from the standpoint that we’re going to get through this.”

It was a more buoyant atmosphere than earlier in the week when the National Weather Service bumped up its crest prediction. Officials expecting a crest in late March and early April were instead given a six-day notice after days of temperatures at or below freezing brought about a speedy snowmelt.

Students, firefighters, teachers and inmates contributed to the volunteer effort. Eric Birney, one of dozens of orange-clad prisoners who helped fill sandbags at a Fargo warehouse, worked his 10th day Wednesday. Inmates get one day knocked off their sentences for each day of filling sandbags.

Birney, 32, said he’s serving a 60-day sentence for possession of drug paraphernalia.

“We might have got a few stares the first couple of days but we’re not hurting anybody,” he said. “I don’t really feel out of place at all. I’m in orange and they’re not. I wish I could go out there with them and smoke a cigarette once in a while, but that’s OK.”

Fargo itself is beginning to show signs of wear and tear from days of preparations. Dump trucks carrying clay for dikes let some spill out, coating roads and making them a muddy mess. Roads are blocked off to let heavy equipment through.

In the Forest River development of south Fargo, where several homes were flooded a year ago, the job of protecting property was “running like clockwork,” resident Richard Thomas said. Thomas’ house was saved last year by an AquaDam, a jellybean-shaped tube filled with water. He said at least three other neighbors bought the tubes this year.

“We’re getting very practiced at this,” Thomas said.

Even the uninitiated pitched in. Katie Salden, 16, traveled about 200 miles to Moorhead with eight members of her church youth group from the Dassel-Cokato area of southwest Minnesota.

“It’s kind of scary,” Salden said, looking at the rising river. “I think the work we are doing here is really productive. This is a good thing to do.”

Moorhead resident Tony St. Michel waited outside his house Wednesday for engineers to sign off on his sandbag dike, then planned to turn his attention to a spread sheet he keeps to monitor the river.

“I can tell you what the flow is, I can tell you what the level is,” he said. “I watch it close and I don’t get a lot of sleep when it gets up on the sandbags.”

Federal officials also were in standby mode, working to complete plans for possible emergency rescues. At least nine airboats and two helicopters were on the way. So was enough cots, blankets, water and food for 20,000 evacuees for five days, should it come to that, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Tito Hernandez said.

“Right now our focus in on life saving and protecting property,” Hernandez said. “We feel confident in our plan.”

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