Friday 27 March 2009
Red River rescue workers patrol between Moorhead, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota, Thursday. (Photo: Jim Mone / AP)
Fargo, North Dakota - The Red River rose to a 112-year high early Friday, breaching a dike south of downtown and forcing authorities to order the evacuations of about 150 homes.
The river had risen to 40.32 feet early Friday - more than 22 feet above flood stage and inches more than the previous high water mark of 40.1 feet set April 7, 1897. It was expected to crest as high as 43 feet on Saturday.
Just after 2 a.m. Friday, residents in one neighborhood were roused from sleep and ordered to evacuate after authorities found a leak in a dike. The leak left the integrity of the dike in question, police Capt. Tod Dahle said.
"It's not like there's a wall of water going through," he said. "It's just a significant leak."
Fargo spokeswoman Karena Lunday said it was the only overnight breech and crews would start patching it Friday morning.
Officials vowed to build the dikes higher, but there was a growing sense the city's best efforts might not be enough.
"We do not want to give up yet. We want to go down swinging if we go down," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Thursday, just hours after the disheartening news that forecasters had - yet again - increased the projected crest.
The American Red Cross planned to send another 150 people to the North Dakota flood zone to operate emergency shelters. They will join the 85 such volunteers already working in Grand Forks, Bismarck, Fargo and Moorhead, Minn.
Spokeswoman Courtney Johnson said Friday it's not necessarily a sign that the Red Cross is expecting a disaster. "No one living has ever seen something like this," she said. "We preach preparedness. We can't not be prepared."
As evacuations in the Red River Valley continue, the shelters are starting to fill. She said the shelter set up in the Moorhead High School had less than a dozen people Thursday evening - but was up to 29 by Friday morning.
Residents in this city of 92,000 had been scrambling in subfreezing temperatures to pile sandbags along the river and spent much of Thursday preparing for a crest of 41 feet, only to have forecasters late in the day add up to 2 feet to their estimate.
The National Weather Service said in its follow-up statement that the Red was expected to crest between 41 and 42 feet by Saturday, but could reach 43 feet. It said water levels could remain high for three days to a week - a lengthy test of on-the-fly flood control.
The first estimate sparked urgency among thousands of volunteers in Fargo. The second shook their spirits.
"I've lived here 40 years and over a 30-minute span I've reached a point where I'm preparing to evacuate and expect never to sleep in my house again," said Tim Corwin, 55, whose south Fargo home was sheltered by sandbags to 43 feet.
Dick Bailly, 64, choked up as he looked out over his backyard dike.
"It was demoralizing this morning," Bailly said, his eyes welling. "We got a lot of work to do. People have the will to respond, but you can only fight nature so much, and sometimes nature wins."
But the sandbag-making operation at the Fargodome churned as furiously as ever, sending fresh bags out to an estimated 6,000 volunteers who endured temperatures below 20 degrees in the race to sandbag.
"I was skeptical as far as volunteers coming out today, but they're like mailmen," said Leon Schlafmann, Fargo's emergency management director. "They come out rain, sleet or shine."
Gov. John Hoeven called for 500 more National Guard members to join 900 already part of the effort.
Several unusual factors sent the Red River surging to historic heights this year. The winter was unusually cold and snowy, which left a large snowpack sitting on top of frozen ground that couldn't absorb it. Then a warm snap and heavy rain quickly melted the snow and sent it into toward the river.
And it all happened to a river that flows north. When most rivers in the United States melt, they send the extra water south toward warmer, open water. When the Red breaks up, it sends hunks of ice north into colder water that is often still frozen.
Officials ordered the evacuation of another Fargo neighborhood and a nursing home late Thursday after authorities found cracks in an earthen levee. Residents were not in immediate danger, and water wasn't flowing over the levee, Walaker said.
Still, officers went door to door to the roughly 40 homes in the River Vili neighborhood and were evacuating Riverview Estates nursing home. Authorities also asked the 1,000 residents who live between the main dikes and the backup dikes in various parts of the city to leave within 24 hours. That evacuation could become mandatory.
The city was also blocking off its main roadways Friday, so sandbag trucks could get to where they were needed most.
Authorities across the river in Moorhead, also stepped up evacuations Thursday. The city of about 35,000 recommended that residents leave the southwest corner of the city and a low-lying township to the north where some homes had already flooded.
Fargo's largest hospital and at least four nursing homes also moved residents.
"A few of them said they didn't want to go. I said I'm going where the crowd goes," said 98-year-old Margaret "Dolly" Beaucage, who clasped rosary beads as she waited to leave Elim Care Center.
"I'm a swimmer," she said, smiling, "but not that good a swimmer."
In rural areas south of Fargo, crews were rescuing stranded residents. Pat Connor of the Cass County sheriff's department said 70 people had been rescued by Thursday evening, and he expected that number to grow.
The federal government announced a disaster declaration Thursday for seven Minnesota counties. The entire state of North Dakota had received a disaster designation earlier in the week.
On the Canadian side of the northern-flowing Red River, ice-clogged culverts, ice jams and the rising river threatened Manitoba residents. Several homes were evacuated north of Winnipeg and several dozen houses were flooded.
"We're in for probably the worst two weeks that this community has ever seen in its entire existence," St. Clements Mayor Steve Strang said. The Red River crest threatening North Dakota isn't expected to arrive in Manitoba for another week.
On the Web:
Red River at Fargo water levels: http://sn.im/enwgc