Red River hits crest without doing much damage; flood fears start to recede in Fargo, ND

By Dave Kolpack, AP
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Red River hits crest, begins to recede in Fargo

FARGO, N.D. — The crest of the Red River was met Sunday with more shrugs than white knuckles, as flood fears receded and Fargo residents walked their dogs and went to church instead of sandbagging and fleeing to higher ground.

City officials said they were relieved the bloated river running along the border of North Dakota and Minnesota didn’t cause major damage leading up to its crest.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker noted that while most floods have at least “one day of chaos” that didn’t happen this year. But he cautioned against celebrating too soon.

“We need at least another week here before we get it to the level we wanted it to be. There’s still a lot of water down south,” Walaker told The Associated Press.

The National Weather Service said the Red River crested Sunday afternoon just under 37 feet, or 19 feet over flood stage, and was now on its way down. The region has been hoping 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 over the next few days.

“We’re bobbling downward,” weather service spokesman Greg Gust said. He said the river appeared to be starting a “very slow decline through the remainder of the day.”

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.

Fargo residents began cleaning up the debris in low-lying neighborhoods where more than a million sandbags held back waters. Highway crews also were out measuring the clay that had been used to build levees so they could start preparing for how to remove the temporary barriers later this week.

The calm mood was 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.

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 went jogging and went to church.

At the First Assembly of God church in Fargo, where volunteers gathered over the past week to stack sandbags, senior Pastor Bob Ona invited several families whose homes were damaged in last year’s floods to pray.

“We want to publicly give thanks to God — he has helped us, we have been spared,” Ona said. “Amen! Hallelujah!”

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

“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.

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.

Officials have said they were better prepared for this year’s floods than the record-breaking ones in 2009 when thousands were evacuated and many buildings and homes were severely damaged by floodwaters.

This year, thousands of volunteers filled and placed sandbags and the Army Corps of Engineers built dozens of clay dikes. Officials also spent time preparing homeowners in low-lying neighborhoods for floods. They showed people how to build better sandbag dikes and used social networking sites to inform residents about floods preparations.

The weather also helped. Though the river initially rose faster than expected because of unseasonably warm weather, below-freezing temperatures over the past several days slowed the melting of snow and skies were free of major rain storms.

Associated Press Writers James MacPherson and John Flesher contributed to this report.

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