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Published March 31, 2009, 12:00 AM

Agony by the inch

Newfallen snow adds to concerns of another crest
As a winter storm howled its way toward the flood-stricken Red River Valley on Monday, officials were warned of yet another threat on the horizon: a second crest in two weeks that could send the Red River back to 40 feet.

By: Dave Olson, INFORUM

As a winter storm howled its way toward the flood-stricken Red River Valley on Monday, officials were warned of yet another threat on the horizon: a second crest in two weeks that could send the Red River back to 40 feet.

The National Weather Service said there is a good possibility the river will hit 37 feet in mid-April and a remote chance the Red could go to 40 feet or higher.

“It will be up there in the major flood category,” said Michael Hudson, a National Weather Service spokesman who described the 40-foot possibility as “a worst-case scenario,” based on available information.

Hudson said the forecast takes into account snow expected from this week’s storm – possibly 12 inches in places – and other precipitation that could fall in early April, some as soon as this weekend.

Take nothing down

Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said the news means one thing: “Nobody should take anything down.”

He said a second crest was ominous, but added there’s time to do extra work between now and the middle of April.

Conditions had improved enough in Moorhead on Monday that the city lifted its evacuation call for residents living between Main Avenue and Interstate 94 west of Eighth Street and a portion of north Moorhead near the Moorhead Country Club.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said what happens in the future will be determined by how far the river falls before snowmelt pushes the Red higher again.

“Hopefully, the river will drop enough to take care of any moisture we get,” Walaker said.

The river has been falling about a foot a day since peaking at 40.82 feet midday Saturday. It stood at 38.8 feet at 6 p.m. Monday.

Before Fargo officials learned of the possibility of a second peak, they spoke optimistically Monday of going down from “high alert” to “alert” status and of starting the recovery process.

Also on the agenda: deciding when it is appropriate to start removing contingency dikes, or cutting holes in them to allow access to neighborhoods.

Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral said federal officials have informed the city of a provision in federal law that will allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remain longer and to help out with the dike removal process.

The rule will save the city a tremendous amount of time and red tape when it comes to cleaning up, Zavoral said.

Zimmerman said Moorhead is looking into whether it can take advantage of the federal provision.

He said of the approximately 2,600 households asked to voluntarily evacuate, about 35 percent have done so.

Weathering the storm

Fargo and Moorhead officials advised drivers to stay off the streets during and immediately after the blizzard because snow clearing efforts will focus on keeping emergency routes open.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland urged residents in the remaining voluntary evacuation zone to stay away from their homes awhile longer to keep pressure off of the city’s sewer system.

Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist told rural residents thinking of evacuating to do it during daylight hours.

He also asked people to report any roads that are washed out or that have water running over them.

Also Monday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty talked with Moorhead and National Guard officials and then went with Guard troops to look at damage in Oakport Township north of Moorhead.

Three people were rescued from rural Cass County homes Monday after Sheriff Paul Laney warned the blizzard would likely make further rescues difficult if not impossible late Monday and today.

“That window is going to close,” Laney said.

A spokesman for the Coast Guard said the agency had rescued 93 people from besieged homes as of Monday afternoon. The total number of rescues by all agencies was 155 late Monday.

Laney said hundreds of people remain in rural homes cut off by water, but he said his office is in communication with them and will make phone checks during the storm, which is expected to pose a greater threat to dikes in rural areas than to those in Fargo-Moorhead.

“The wind is certainly going to be a concern, especially in those north- and west-facing areas,” Hudson said.

Laney said the Coast Guard has imposed federal rules forbidding boat traffic on the Red River.

He said if anyone wants to test the rule, “We’ve got a place (for them) to stay.”

Oak Grove still at risk

At Fargo Oak Grove Lutheran School, crews worked Monday to clean damage caused when a dike breached early Sunday.

One building, Jackson Hall, was flooded to stabilize pressure between it and Benson Hall, which is near the initial leak.

Both buildings had several inches of water in their basements.

Members of the National Guard and Army Corps remained on the site to help seal off the leak and stack sandbags along the floodwall, while 24-hour dike patrols continue to monitor the school’s dikes.

“The campus could still flood,” said High School Principal Morgan Forness, one of the school officials who met Monday with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials about flood damage reimbursement. “We have a lot of work ahead of us,” he said.


Where to call with flood questions, dike issues

  • To volunteer in the flood-fighting effort, call FirstLink at (701) 476-4000.

  • To report a significant levee break, call 911.

  • For other flood-related questions, these numbers are available:

    Fargo

  • Leaking dikes – city engineer’s office: (701) 241-1545.

  • General flood questions:

    (701) 476-4007.

    Cass County

  • Emergency operations: (701) 241-5793.

    Moorhead

  • Evacuation assistance line: (218) 477-4747.

  • Emergency operations center: (218) 299-5255.

  • Engineering: (218) 299-5399.

    Clay County

  • Emergency operations: (218) 299-7768 or (218) 299-7769.


Reporters Helmut Schmidt and Kelly Smith contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

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