Don’t light the cigar yet: Fargo officials stress its too early to celebrate flood victory

By Dave Kolpack, AP
Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fargo officials: Don’t celebrate flood victory yet

FARGO, N.D. — A city used to fighting floods was confident Saturday that it had done enough to hold back the swelling Red River — even as the water inched higher — but officials stressed that it was too early to celebrate.

Homeowners checking on piles of sandbags in their yards and National Guard soldiers inspecting clay dikes said they didn’t see any immediate problems. City officials, who weathered record flooding last year that forced thousands of residents to evacuate, even passed out cigars that they said they would light — but not until after Sunday’s expected crest.

“There’s always a battle between people who say it’s over when it’s crested. … This is an ongoing problem. Right now I feel all the dikes and sandbags and earthen dikes should stay in place at least until it’s down to 30 feet,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said.

City crews were turning their attention Saturday to cleaning up debris — plastic, plywood, unused sandbags — from neighborhoods where dikes were built.

Thousands of volunteers spent the past week filling and placing more than 1 million sandbags to fight back the Red River, and officials and residents said they felt better prepared for this year’s floods.

On Saturday they got some more good news: The National Weather Service lowered its crest prediction for Sunday by another half-foot to 19 feet above the flood stage. The weather also helped — below-freezing temperatures helped slow the melting of snow.

The flooding in Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., has mostly been limited to areas along the Red River, where 3-feet-high piles of sandbags that stretch for miles along back yards have prevented the river’s waters from reaching homes and other buildings.

The rising river has flooded yards, bike paths, a baseball diamond and golf course — but so far, there has been no major damage. In the rural areas outside of Fargo, the flooding has been more widespread, with several farm fields submerged and a few roads washed out.

Though the river could still threaten homes and roads, especially if any of the clay levees are breached or if there is heavy rain in April, Walaker said he was not aware of a single public building in North Dakota’s largest city had been damaged by this year’s floods.

Moorhead homeowner Randy Bach was up at 6 a.m. on Saturday. But instead of checking the sandbags around his house like he did last year, he took his golden retriever, Roscoe, for a walk and then planned to head to the YMCA to play racquetball.

Last year, he had wade through floodwaters to get to his car that had to be parked on the street. This year, Bach had his driveway all to himself.

“Good news. It’s all good news,” he said before getting into his SUV.

Last year, thousands were evacuated in the Fargo area and many homes were damaged as the Red River swelled to record levels. Though it did not appear that it would cause many severe problems in Fargo and Moorhead, rural areas could see significant overland flooding from some of the river’s smaller tributaries.

Several farms were already surrounded by water or had been turned into soggy fields, and those conditions could continue. National Weather Service spokesman Bill Barrett said Saturday that the nearby Sheyenne River was about a foot over flood stage. The river is expected to stay at or near its crest level for about a week in most places, officials said.

“Any place affected by the Sheyenne still has a long ways to go in the flood fight,” said Cass County engineer Keith Berndt.

National Guard soldiers who watched over the flood dikes in and around Fargo said they were finding no major problems. Staff Sgt. Jason Zumbo, who worked a 12-hour shift overnight, said this year’s situation is markedly better than the record flood of last year.

“It’s not so much boring, it’s just that last year was a lot worse,” Zumbo said.

He noted that a snowstorm in the middle of last year’s flood made conditions much more sloppy.

“This year, you’re not walking around with 15 pounds of mud stuck on your boots,” he said.

At one mobile command headquarters on the Minnesota side of the river, the focus was on breakfast Saturday morning as sheriff’s deputies made deer sausage.

Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said the only call of the night was a house fire northeast of Glyndon, Minn., but it wasn’t related to the flood.

“We are just watching and waiting now,” Bergquist said. “We’re just so much further ahead than last year. Everything is going well.”

Associated Press Writer James MacPherson contributed to this report.

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