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Helmut Schmidt, Published March 19 2010

Levees ready; now we wait

It’s down to waiting, walking and watching.

Nearly all of Fargo’s levees and dikes were in place Thursday, with just a few neighborhoods needing work to button up sandbag and clay dikes along the Red River, Rose Coulee and county drains, officials said Thursday.

City Commissioner Tim Mahoney said the weeks of planning and days of dike building now give way to patience and prayer.

“Wait for the crest. Walk the dikes. Watch for problems,” are now the city’s watchwords, Mahoney said.

From Mayor Dennis Walaker, the message for residents monitoring dikes is simpler: “Be vigilant.”

“We’re not through this thing yet,” he said. “We are very vulnerable to the weather.”

After several days of the Red rising at 2 1/2 feet or more a day, Walaker expects the river to level off on its way to a predicted crest of 38 feet Sunday.

Still, as long as water touches the dikes, there is a chance for a breach that could damage homes and city water or sewer systems or harm residents, Walaker said. The sooner leaks or serious seepage are found, the faster repair can be made, he said.

National Guard and city crews have four quick-reaction groups in place with sandbags on trucks or roll-off bins in heated storage so the bags remain pliable for repairs, Mahoney said.

Residents can call (701) 476-4199 to report leaks.

Unlike 2009, Fargo has no contingency dikes behind the dikes and levees now guarding the city.

“There was not enough time,” Walaker said.

If the flood had arrived in April, Walaker said some contingency dikes might have gone up to protect important infrastructure or vulnerable areas. But the extra dikes create their own problems, among them getting residents in and out of controlled areas, and they take time to build.

Mahoney said more semi-permanent levees were built this year. Those levees, more solid than sandbags or temporary dikes, are meant to stay up until a permanent flood control project is built for the area.

This year’s crest also appears to be nearly 3 feet lower than last year’s crest of 40.84 feet, meaning less risk of failure for the primary levees.

The Red was at 34.44 feet at 9:15 p.m. Thursday, the National Weather Service reported. A crest of 38 feet was predicted for Sunday afternoon.

Chilly temperatures should slow the melt and the rise of the Red and its tributaries. The weather service predicts highs in the low- to mid-30s and lows in the teens for the next few days.

Those lows mean sandbags left outside will be frozen and useless for dike repairs, Walaker said. That also makes levees more susceptible to leaks.

“The sandbags that are left over in the (threatened) areas are not to be used. When it gets down to 14 degrees, it’s like trying to stack turkeys. I mean frozen turkeys. Not fresh turkeys, frozen turkeys,” Walaker said, drawing laughs.

That’s why Fargo keeps its emergency bags warm, he said.

Police and National Guard soldiers and airmen began patrolling dikes Thursday.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583