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Published March 26, 2009, 12:00 AM

Oxbow residents wake up to their city under siege

Quickly rising Red River forces several boat rescues
OXBOW, N.D. – Though the surging Red River runs right past his backyard, Matt Murphy felt confident heading to bed Tuesday.

By: Dave Roepke, INFORUM

OXBOW, N.D. – Though the surging Red River runs right past his backyard, Matt Murphy felt confident heading to bed Tuesday.

“We thought we were good,” said Murphy, owner of one of the lowest-lying houses in this town of about 240 people about 20 miles south of Fargo.

On Wednesday, Murphy and the rest of Oxbow woke up to a city under siege. Ice floated streets atop water as high as 4 feet, and rescuers from the Cass County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Coast Guard went door to door offering boat rides to higher, drier land.

By midday, about 20 residents were rescued by boat, said Sgt. Dwayne Nitschke of the Cass County Sheriff’s Office. Nitschke didn’t have specifics, but more had been evacuated since.

Residents and officials alike were taken aback by the quickly rising Red, which swelled from 30 feet near adjacent Hickson at 5 p.m. Monday to 38.9 feet by 5 p.m. Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. The water was nearly a foot and a half above the record crest of 37.6 feet set in 1997.

“This morning it was just like, ‘Wow,’ ” Nitschke said. “This is scary to lots of people.”

The weather service doesn’t forecast flood levels at this point in the river, though Tom Grafenauer, a weather service meteorologist, said the Red should be leveling off Wednesday night and cresting today. The town’s dike-building relied on Army Corps of Engineers estimates that proved to be off, said Oxbow Mayor Frank Pearson.

“Everything just went to hell,” Pearson said in the makeshift command center at the Knickerbocker Liquor Locker in Hickson.

As a result, residents were scrambling Wednesday to add another foot or more to flood protection walls, fighting subfreezing cold and spotty snow.

Some had to give up the fight, abandoning their homes, Nitschke said. Others, such as Jane Pearson, the mayor’s wife, and her 93-year-old mother, Mary Bailey, got out by boat after their house was ringed with sandbags.

“It’s better to save your life than put yourself through all this,” said Jane Pearson. Leaving during the day by choice beat needing to at night, Pearson said. Boat rescues were to run at dark only if absolutely necessary.

Others were still pitching an 11th-hour battle. Murphy directed a frantic effort behind his house, with a dozen volunteers adding width and height to his dike as the Red River stood just more than a foot below the top of the sandbag wall.

“I need 2 by 6s!” he shouted as crews slammed bags down with force so they would form together despite being as hard as bricks due to the frigid air.

On Schnell Drive, where the Pearsons and Murphy live, skid loaders and pickups left wakes in the water as they hauled sandbags to homes. The bags were filled by dozens of volunteers at a station set up in an empty lot near the clubhouse for Oxbow Golf and Country Club, which the city’s streets surround.

Jeremy Weidner, one of the volunteers at the sandbag station, said the cold froze up the sand at times.

“You’ve just got to chop through it,” he said.

A group of more than 40 students from middle and high schools in Hutchinson, Minn., were there to help, including 12-year-old Cody Freyholtz. His legs were soaked after jumping in to floodwaters without boots on, but his main concern was repaying a debt. In 2008, his grandfather was treated at Fargo MeritCare before dying.

“They did so well, I thought I’d do something to help them out,” he said.

At the Knickerbocker, maps were spread on a pool table as rescuers figured out where to send boats. Nitschke said the county had 10 vessels from various departments at its disposal.

The Coast Guard’s air boats, powered by enormous fans, ran in to some snags on the slushy terrain. One got stuck for about 15 minutes near the tee box for the 11th hole of the golf course.

Mike Bice, owner of the Knickerbocker, said he arrived at his bar at about 8 a.m. Wednesday to find a deputy asking him if he had a crowbar so he could get in to the building.

“Well, would my key work?” Bice said.

For the rest of the day, he kept tabs on the situation from the bar. By the afternoon, Bice was starting to worry about his own home, even though it was supposed to stay dry even with a 41-foot Fargo crest.

“It’s never been this bad,” he said. “You have to be concerned.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535