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Salvation Army head says 'fear is setting in' across F-M area

Students, soldiers, neighbors and other volunteers slogged through the rain en masse Monday, racing to reinforce levees and fill sandbags while the area braced for more moisture today and Wednesday.

North Fargo flooding
James Opitz looks out over the floodwaters of the Red River on Monday after a day of sandbagging behind his parents' home in north Fargo. The home, owned by Jim and Nancy Opitz, will be the first house outside the protection of a temporary dike laid across South Terrace near Oak Grove Lutheran School. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Students, soldiers, neighbors and other volunteers slogged through the rain en masse Monday, racing to reinforce levees and fill sandbags while the area braced for more moisture today and Wednesday.

As the National Weather Service stuck to its prediction that the Red River will crest at 39 to 41 feet in Fargo-Moorhead on Friday, the mounting stress of a potential record flood began to take its toll.

"Fear is setting in," said Salvation Army Capt. Adam Moore. "We're seeing that on the streets."

As of 9:15 p.m. Monday, the Red River level in Fargo was 27.86 feet.

Weather service officials warned that a storm system moving into the Red River Valley from Nebraska overnight could drop up to an inch of rain over a widespread area today before the rain turns to snow Wednesday.

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Despite sporadic showers Monday, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the city "had a good day."

"We need a really good day tomorrow," he said.

Fargo tried to speed up the dike-building process by deploying a portable wall system that's used to protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from bullets and grenades.

Sharon Mueller watched from near her home just off 40th Avenue South as a payloader filled a wall of the Hesco containers with sand. Under the road, large ice chunks floated down the swollen Drain 27.

Mueller, a retired bartender, said she couldn't believe how fast the rising water was running. She said that despite her husband's complacency, she was worried about flooding.

"Can you imagine what Noah must have felt like?" she said.

Sandbagging hit high gear in the metro, as high schools let out students and colleges canceled classes to aid the effort.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven said students would be forgiven for missed school days.

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About 30 Concordia College students stacked sandbags around Barb Groth's house in Oakport Township north of Moorhead, where several hundred volunteers pitched in.

Groth, whose home flooded in 1997 when the Red River crested at 39.57 feet, said she didn't think a repeat was possible.

"I never thought it could happen again. We're nervous," she said.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty stopped in Oakport and Moorhead, urging state residents to join the flood fight. About 230 Minnesota National Guard troops were helping with flood efforts, and he said he expects that number will eventually reach about 400.

Hoeven said the state's National Guard committed 500 soldiers and airmen to the water war, with more available.

Fargo raised its goal for daily sandbag output to 300,000 to try to fill 2 million bags by Thursday.

"If those neighborhoods hold, we are safe as a city," said Fargo City Commissioner Tim Mahoney. "If we're unable to do that, we're going to have a problem."

The city was prepared for a Red River crest of 38 feet. Now, city officials want to get the dikes up to 42 feet, Mahoney said.

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At 41 feet "we lose a lot of houses," he said. "If we're going to get this thing done, it's going to have to be done in the next 24 to 48 hours in a massive way."

The Fargodome, where volunteers waited for bus rides to Sandbag Central the city's utilities building - became its own sandbag-filling station with hundreds of shovel-wielding volunteers scooping sand dumped on the parking lot.

Sandbaggers kept spirits up despite the gloomy weather and flood outlook.

A man who dropped off a pallet of sandbags near South River Road in Fargo joked to a gang of female high schools students that some of the bags must have been filled by girls because they were fairly lightweight. The girls hollered back their disapproval as they hoisted the bags and kept working.

Walaker said officials aren't resigned to let any neighborhood flood, adding that most of the city should be protected to 41 feet by Thursday. Still, earthen contingency dikes are being built behind some homes in case sandbag dikes along the river fail.

"We're going to have to start discussing some evacuation routes in case something does happen," Walaker said.

Fargo plans to give residents routes out of town Wednesday afternoon or Thursday, said Pat Zavoral, Fargo city administrator.

"There are some locations in south Fargo where if the water does break away from these (dikes), they won't be able to use Interstate-29," he said.

Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes urged residents to go to the city's Web site and register for the Code Red alert system so they can be reached in an emergency. Residents with land lines are already registered in the system.

Sandbagging efforts continued overnight. City officials hope they get 300 people an hour to help fill sandbags at the city's utility operation center at 2301 8th Ave. N. and 1,000 people an hour at the Fargodome.

Hoeven asked for a presidential emergency declaration based on preparation efforts because of the costs. He said he thinks the state might get it today.

Mark Bittner, Fargo city engineer, said the city has done a lot since the flood of 1997, but Fargo has also grown a lot.

"We're basically building as many levies as we did in '97, plus protecting the rest of the city," he said. "There are very few parts along the river that don't need something done."

Forum reporter Tracy Frank contributed to this report

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

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