Fargo on brink of declaring victory as weeklong fight against river flooding nears its climax

By Dave Kolpack, AP
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fargo’s fight against flooding nears its climax

FARGO, N.D. — A weeklong fight against flooding neared its climax in Fargo on Sunday, with miles of sandbags and clay dikes expected to hold back the bloated Red River at its crest with room to spare.

City officials and residents were on the brink of declaring victory and ready to move out of flood fighting mode. They hoped for mostly dry weather to speed the river’s fall by week’s end. The forecast was cooperating, with only a small chance of rain in sight on Tuesday evening.

Still, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker warned residents not to begin dismantling sandbag dikes too soon.

“It doesn’t take much to bounce us back,” Walaker said. “The river goes up at two to three times what it goes down at.”

The river continued inching upward early Sunday toward an expected crest that afternoon of 19 feet over the flood stage, followed by a quick and steady drop. That was good news to residents of North Dakota’s largest city, who worried that the Red could stay at its crest for several days, straining temporary levees and sandbag dikes.

As they waited for the crest, Fargo residents turned their attention to cleaning up the debris in low-lying neighborhoods where more than a million sandbags held back waters.

The calm mood stood in stark contrast to last year, when floods along the north-flowing Red River sparked a last-minute frenzy of sandbagging that brought life to a halt and forced thousands to evacuate.

This year, residents in Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., were confident as the river completed a rise driven by the spring thaw of a thick snowpack: On Sunday, they walked the dog, went jogging and headed to church.

Fargo resident Terry Ziegelmann spent Sunday morning leisurely reading the paper and eating a bagel at a Moorhead coffee shop less than a block away from the river.

“I don’t see the nervousness in people you would normally see when you talk flood,” said Ziegelmann, who has lived in the area since 1972. “We were prepared this year. In a day or two, the water will start receding and life will get back to normal.”

Another Fargo resident, Philip Schmaltz, 77, noticed far fewer people were trying to get a view of the rising Red from the bridge linking Fargo and Moorhead this year.

“Last year, more things were going wrong that right,” he said while walking across the bridge. “This year, more things are going right.”

Flooding this year has been limited mostly to areas just along the Red River in Fargo and Moorhead, where 3-feet-high piles of sandbags have prevented the water from reaching homes. Some yards, bike paths and sports fields have flooded — but without major damage.

North Dakota Air National Guard airmen wearing camouflaged uniforms and bright orange lifejackets said they found no major problems during their patrols of temporary dikes in Fargo on Sunday.

Staff Sgt. Wayne Baumbach, 23, who is a student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, said he missed part of his spring break because of the flood — but he didn’t mind.

“I would be nice if the community would not have to go through this again but if they need us we’ll come again,” he said.

In rural areas outside Fargo, more widespread overland flooding from the Red River’s smaller tributaries submerged several farm fields and washed out a few roads. On Saturday, the Coast Guard said it helped 10 people in rural areas including five people in a disabled boat who were towed to a car waiting at the shore. None were in any immediate danger.

Officials here said they were better prepared for this year’s floods than the ones in 2009. Thousands of volunteers filled and placed sandbags and the Army Corps of Engineers built dozens of clay dikes. After the preparations were largely complete, the National Weather Service lowered its crest prediction several times as below-freezing temperatures slowed the melting of snow and skies were free of major rain storms.

Though Walaker had cautioned against celebrating too early, he was among the city officials handing out cigars at a meeting Saturday. They were told to wait until after Sunday’s crest to light them.

Associated Press Writers James MacPherson and Jim Suhr contributed to this report.

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