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Dave Roepke, Published April 06 2011

Roepke: Come Monday, will we be safe or sorry?

MOORHEAD - Better safe than sorry, right?

That’s what Lorraine Hetland has been telling her 86-year-old husband when he’s suggested in recent weeks that the flood on its way might have more bark than height.

Phil Hetland’s response seemed like a common query as the long-planned effort to hold back the Red River crawled off the starting line Tuesday in the wake of the promising crest prediction local officials received Monday.

“Better safe than sorry? Has that been proven?” he joked to a reporter.

While Hetland conceded that preparation has a solid track record, he would have waited a couple of days to start dike-building if his daughter, Marcia Dahl, hadn’t pushed him to start and shown up with her husband to pitch in.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland urged residents to avoid playing that “wait-and-see game” in the first daily briefing of the 2011 flood fight Tuesday.

It was a widely ignored warning. The day’s developments kept stacking up on the breezy side of the urgency ledger.

Fargo city officials said they will only deliver about 600,000 sandbags, roughly a third of the 1.5 million they first planned to bring to homes. Pallets of bags lined curbs in flood-prone areas, a scene that looked daunting but felt dawdling.

Cass County officials said no volunteers were needed in the oft-besieged subdivisions south of Fargo because the sandbagging was already in good shape.

Some fresh figuring by the National Weather Service confirmed the Red appears to be heading to 39½ feet here, barring new rain, though it held off on issuing a firm forecast for the eventual crest. That would be a major flood, but more than a foot short of the 2009 record-breaker.

By the tail end of the day, Moorhead residents had requested just 50,000 sandbags, city officials said. That is less than 3 percent of the 1.8 million bags filled and ready for delivery. By the city’s estimate, it’s about 8 percent of the bags needed to protect homes against even a 39-foot flood.

In Moorhead’s Zone 7, the riverfront homes between 37th and 40th avenues south, just two of the 26 houses that may need protection got started building by Tuesday afternoon, said Jim Schulz, the city’s zone leader for organizing the area’s flood-fight efforts.

Schulz said some trucks that tried to deliver sandbags in the neighborhood had to be sent back, which also happened in the Hetlands’ neck of the woods.

The couple have lived for 50 years on River Drive, the buyout-drained south Moorhead street. A block south of their house late Tuesday morning, a truck driver hauling 1,300 sandbags told another River Drive homeowner he was already turned away at two drop-off locations.

Does that show, as Voxland said, there’s a “relaxed complacency” from hearing the Red may stay somewhat easily tamed?

Nah, it’s too early to say that. It is simple to grasp why a couple of retirees like the Hetlands, or anyone for that matter, would want to hold off if possible on the back-breaking labor of wall-building and the mess it leaves behind.

“There’s a lot to undo,” Lorraine Hetland said.

Voxland was spot-on, though, just a day early.

The bulk of the grunt work that’s so ably saved Fargo-Moorhead the past two years should slip into high gear today, and if it doesn’t, that’s trouble.

Still, the chief danger lurking, the possibility far more worrisome than a suddenly carefree attitude toward diking, is an ill-timed weekend downpour.

If that happens, we’ll see all too clearly how safe trumps sorry.

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