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Published March 22, 2009, 12:00 AM

Race against time: Flood-fighting efforts intensify as storm threatens area

Crews scrambled Saturday to build emergency levees while volunteers filled sandbags as a powerful storm system expected to drop 1 to 2 inches of rain on the southern Red River Valley bore down.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

Crews scrambled Saturday to build emergency levees while volunteers filled sandbags as a powerful storm system expected to drop 1 to 2 inches of rain on the southern Red River Valley bore down.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker was pleased with the progress on dikes so far, as trucks and loaders dashed pall-mall carrying clay to levee sites near the river and in low-lying areas.

Dike builders are racing to get as much work done as possible before heavy rains are expected to begin falling tonight, with up to an inch possible in the first salvo of a powerful storm expected to end Wednesday with snow, according to the National Weather Service.

“That’s why we’re pushing to get the dirt down,” Walaker said Saturday afternoon in a flood information meeting for northside residents, who gathered at the National Guard Armory near the airport.

Walaker said the city needs help from residents. Volunteers still are needed to fill and stack sandbags – as many as 1.5 million are needed to protect the city against a flood crest of 37 to 40 feet March 28 to April 1.

“We’ve never had a rise as rapid as they’re predicting,” he said, warning that multiple crests are likely. Later Walaker added, “We need to make preparations, and this next week is critical.”

The mayor urged residents to remove snow and ice to prepare a base for sandbags, which will begin to be delivered early in the week. They also should clear a path for bagging crews.

Walaker was pleased with progress to date in filling sandbags. About 130,000 were filled in the first 12-hour volunteer shift Friday, and nearly 300,000 had been filled in total by 9 p.m. Saturday.

Meanwhile, reinforcements arrived Saturday to help the bagging operation, as 225 National Guard soldiers and airmen joined volunteers at “Sandbag Central,” which is tasked with filling 250,000 bags a day as crews work around the clock, assisted by two machines.

More help is on the way, with a third machine expected today from Grand Forks, N.D. Still, officials in Fargo, Moorhead and outlying rural areas continued to plead for volunteers to keep coming.

Gov. John Hoeven joined Walaker on a tour of the bagging operation Saturday morning, pledging more state support from the National Guard and Department of Emergency Services.

“We’re going to work very hard to support not only Fargo,” Hoeven said, “but Cass County and up and down the valley.”

State preparations began weeks ago, he added, as heavy snows fell. “Now it’s about getting boots on the ground when they need them,” said Hoeven, who has declared a statewide flood emergency, the first step toward what could become a federal disaster declaration.

Brent and Nancy Fraase, 767 Royal Oaks Drive, were among residents at the flood information meeting for north Fargo. They’ve been notified to prepare for sandbags or a dike at their condominium, located just north of the municipal wastewater treatment plant.

“We’re concerned, but it seems unreal yet,” Nancy said.

Walaker’s take on events Saturday: “Cautious optimism is the comment I’d make right now,” he said, adding the rain has yet to fall.

Major Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard, said more soldiers and equipment are ready to jump in when called upon.

An ice-breaking machine is en route to Wahpeton. Reporters and photographers who were taken for an aerial survey in a Blackhawk helicopter saw the ice beginning to break up along the edges of the Red River between Fargo and Wahpeton.

Water was pooling west of Interstate 29 north of County Road 20, an early trouble spot during floods, in an area south of Harwood.

Elsewhere, the tiny town of Georgetown, Minn., north of Moorhead, decided to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to add two feet to the permanent levee along the Red River.

The corps also is working with contractors to build emergency dikes in Fargo, Moorhead, Harwood, N.D., and Grafton, N.D., as well as protecting roads and lift stations in Richland County.

A total of 1 to 2 inches is expected for the southern Red River Valley, including Fargo-Moorhead, tonight through Tuesday, with more from thunderstorms in isolated areas.

“Where they track, that’s still going to be the biggest question,” said Jim Kaiser, a weather service meteorologist.

The rain is expected to turn to snow Tuesday night or Wednesday, with an accumulation of an inch or less.

“It’s a potent system,” Kaiser said. “It’s just coming at the wrong time. That’s for sure.”

As predicted earlier, cold air will follow the storm, with lows in the teens and 20s and highs in the mid-30s in the extended forecast for Thursday through Saturday.

“That will slow down the melt,” Kaiser said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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