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Published March 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Oak Grove breach acts as ‘wake-up call’

The flood wall breach at Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo overnight Sunday was a “wake-up call” that the river remains dangerously high, even though levels are expected to keep dropping this week.

By: Mike Nowatzki, INFORUM

The flood wall breach at Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo overnight Sunday was a “wake-up call” that the river remains dangerously high, even though levels are expected to keep dropping this week.

“Those things will continue to happen. I guarantee it,” Mayor Dennis Walaker said of the early morning breach, which caused flooding in two of Oak Grove’s buildings.

The good news: The National Weather Service is “very confident” the river is on a slow decline, said Greg Gust, a warning coordination meteorologist. Forecasters are hopeful it will drop to about 38 feet by next Saturday.

The river stood at 39.8 feet at 6:15 p.m. Sunday after peaking at 40.82 feet early Saturday.

A winter storm expected to hit the area this afternoon and Tuesday could dump 6 to 7 inches of snow on Fargo-Moorhead and produce strong winds that will test levees, Gust said.

“That snow should not affect that rate of decline one iota,” he said. “But the wind will affect waves on those dikes.”

To protect against the wave action, the Army Corps of Engineers was having the North Dakota National Guard add a layer of plastic called “poly” over the levees and weigh it down by sandbags.

“Similar actions have been taken, but this is certainly the first time it’s been done this way,” Tim Bertschi, area engineer for the corps’ Fargo office, said in a news release.

The river’s velocity – now at 12 to 16 mph, compared with a normal flow of 4 mph – also increases the chances of dikes failing, Fargo City Commissioner Tim Mahoney said.

Minnesota Rep. Morrie Lanning warned against the tendency to breathe a sigh relief when the river level starts falling.

“We’re going to have to maintain our vigilance,” the former Moorhead mayor said.

Also Sunday, thousands flocked to church services and prayed to a higher power for help in the flood battle. Even press conferences were peppered with prayers.

“I hope today and every day we all pause to give thanks to the Good Lord for protecting us to the point that we have been protected,” Lanning said.

More than 2,000 volunteers flooded the Fargodome Sunday morning to revive the city’s sandbag-filling operation. The strong response prompted officials to extend the operation overnight, until 8 a.m. today.

Some workers were inspired by the bad news earlier in the day.

“With Oak Grove getting swamped, it just made us that much more determined to not let any more (water) in,” said Dean Sather, who was taking a break with the two youngest of his four sons, ages 5, 7, 9 and 12.

By midday, the dome seemed well on its way to meeting its goal of 500,000 sandbags, with an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 completed by 2 p.m.

Oak Grove officials were optimistic flood damage would be limited to two buildings after a Black Hawk helicopter strategically placed 11 1-ton sandbags where the water had started spurting from under a steel cofferdam about 1:15 a.m. Sunday.

Fargo and Moorhead had each lost five homes to flooding, although officials said they expected the Fargo homes to flood because they were in unprotected areas.

North of Fargo, five people blocked in by water in homes were rescued Sunday, with three leaving by boat and two by helicopter. Some residents have chosen to remain in the area.

Water also infiltrated the lowest level of Moorhead’s Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretive Center, but the extent of damage wasn’t yet known, City Manager Michael Redlinger said.

Water service was restored to inundated Oakport Township, but Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist warned it wasn’t safe for homeowners to return, as many basements have sewer backup or river water in them. Moorhead Public Service cut power to 32 homes with flooded basements.

Walaker asked that Fargo’s non-essential businesses remain closed through Monday to limit traffic congestion, but he said “essential services” – gas stations, grocery and hardware stores and medical facilities – should open.

About 2,000 nursing home residents, hospital patients, disabled and others with special needs had been evacuated from Fargo as a precautionary measure, officials said.

While stressing that the flood fight is far from over, officials also cast an eye toward cleanup and future flood protection projects.

Mahoney said Congress somehow came up with $800 billion for the stimulus package, and “all we’re asking for is $800 million” for permanent flood control in the metro area.

“For all those who have been in our environment in the last week, you wouldn’t want to do this every year,” he said.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency official said teams would begin assessing the flood damage today to get a sense of what type of assistance will be needed for public entities and individuals.

Lanning said he has put his colleagues in the Minnesota Legislature on notice that the area will need funding for recovery and future flood mitigation.

Fargo also may ask the Army Corps of Engineers to stick around and help put back the clay taken from throughout the city for temporary levees, Walaker said.

“Our estimates right now are about two months to clean up the mess we made,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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