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Published March 24, 2009, 11:59 AM

FLOOD UPDATE: Crookston, Minn., calls for voluntary evacuation of low-lying areas

CROOKSTON - The Red Lake River rose almost four feet in five hours early today, sending Crookston flood-fighting efforts into a higher gear.

By: By Ryan Bakken, Grand Forks Herald

CROOKSTON - The Red Lake River rose almost four feet in five hours early today, sending Crookston flood-fighting efforts into a higher gear.

The rapid rise was the result of an ice jam breaking upstream. The water had built up behind the jam, which acted as a dam, so it came in a hurry. The river reading went from 21.85 feet at 5 a.m. to 25.6 feet at 10 a.m.

The city's call for sandbaggers was met when University of Minnesota-Crookston canceled school and high school students were excused with parental permission. Officials believed 100 sandbaggers working throughout today could reach the goal of protecting the threatened neighborhoods to 27 feet.

A voluntary evacuation order was issued for residents of Sampson's and Jerome's additions, the lowest-lying areas that are not protected by permanent dikes. A shelter was set up at Lysaker Gymnasium at UMC for people who chose to be evacuated.

"We can't force people to leave their homes," Mayor Dave Genereux said. "Even if we call for a mandatory evacuation, we can't make people go.

"But if you need help to get out, you should go. If the levee breeches, you can only do so much. You'll have 10 minutes to get out, but I don't know if you'll have much more time than that."

Ice jams causing rapid rises is common for Crookston, which narrowly escaped disaster in 1997 when a jam broke and the level dropped rapidly.

The all-time crest of 28.33 feet came in 1997.

Although protection efforts aren't as complicated as 1997 because some areas are now protected, the reaction time is less. "We knew it was coming for six weeks in 1997 and had time to prepare," Crookston administrator Aaron Parrish said. "We were expecting 25-26 feet this year, but we expected it late in the week, not on Tuesday. It's a surge we've had to respond to quickly."

The Red Lake River is especially difficult for crest forecasts because of its history of ice jams creating fluctuations.

"It's one serpentine kind of affair," said Mike MacDonald, the city's flood protection project coordinator. "It twists around itself very frequently, which makes it difficult for the ice to clear."

Overnight rain of almost an inch also added to the city's stress, bringing uncertainty. With the ice scheduled to move through the city today, the river reading was expected to drop in the afternoon. The crest is still expected late this week.

"We're optimistic this is the last of our ice problems," MacDonald said.

Because storm sewers in low areas were having problems handling the water, the Sixth Street Underpass was closed, forcing all of U.S. Highway

2 traffic through the city to be rerouted to the bypass or through residential neighborhoods. Ice knocked out a gas line under the Sampson Bridge and the city suffered temporary power outages overnight because ice took down a power pole.

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications.

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