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Erik Burgess, Published March 20 2013

Fargo to build 500,000 new sandbags to prep for flood that could rival 2010, 2011

FARGO – City officials here plan to fill 500,000 more sandbags as worries mount that flooding this spring could be as bad as it was in 2010 and 2011.

City Administrator Pat Zavoral said Fargo will open sandbag central to add to its existing stock of 750,000 bags. The concern is the longer the cold weather stalls melting, the more likely it is that heavy April rains could wash away the region’s deep snowpack in a hurry.

“It’s always better to be prepared,” Zavoral said. “We don’t want to be caught short on bags.”

A new flood outlook from the National Weather Service will be announced this morning. Though he would not disclose specifics of the new outlook, there will be a “significant flood” on the Red River this spring, said Greg Gust, a meteorologist with the weather service’s Grand Forks office.

“Let’s just say it’s going to be in the realm of some of the big floods we’ve seen in the last few years,” he said, referring to floods in 2010 and 2011.

“It’s not looking quite so bad as ’09,” Gust added.

In 2010, the Red River crested at 36.99 feet. In 2011, it hit 38.81 feet, the fourth highest on record. The 2009 flood crested at 40.84 feet.

Zavoral said city officials spoke with weather service meteorologists and another federal agency Wednesday, but they don’t know what the specific predictions in the new outlook will be. He said Fargo officials expect a 50-50 chance of a flood between 36½ and 38 feet and will be looking closely at the level the crest has a 10 percent chance of hitting.

There’s no firm timeline on when sandbag central would open, but the plan is to have the extra 500,000 ready by the time snow is melting, Zavoral said.

Together with the 750,000 bags still left over from the 2011 flood, Fargo would have 1.25 million sandbags. City estimates show a 42-foot crest requiring 1.1 million sandbags.

After the weather service announces its new round of predictions today at 10:30 a.m., city officials will hold a news conference to detail their plans, Zavoral said.

Gust said slow melting and record to near-record cold temperatures are bumping up the likelihood of a major flood. He said temperatures will stay in the freezing range until the middle of next week. Things won’t start really melting until the first week in April, and a flood won’t start “materializing” until the second week, Gust said.

The snowpack upstream, in the Wahpeton area, is “as much or more” than it was in 2011, he said.

“It’s going to take days and days to melt that,” he said.

In its last flood outlook on March 7, the weather service predicted an 88 percent chance the Red River would top the 30-foot major flood stage in Fargo-Moorhead.

It also said there was a 5 percent chance of the river exceeding 38.2 feet.

Last week, after his annual drive to look at snow and water conditions in the southern Red River Valley, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker predicted the river would hit 32 feet in Fargo.

Fargo was in “pretty good shape” for the projected water levels in the March 7 flood outlook, said City Engineer Mark Bittner. The city has spent about

$100 million in flood protection since 1997 and much of the city is protected to 38 feet or more.

“We’ve made quite a few improvements over the past three, four years,” Bittner said.

The city has constructed more than 20 levees since 2009, data from the engineering office shows. All of them are built to 42.5 feet or greater, and many are along or near the river between 40th and 64th avenues south.

At 38 feet, Fargo requires 250,000 sandbags. At 42 feet, that number jumps to

1.1 million bags and an estimated 11 miles of temporary levees, Bittner said.

Moorhead is also well-equipped to fight upcoming floods. Since 2009, the city has spent $88 million on mitigation projects, said City Engineer Bob Zimmerman.

Moorhead requires no sandbags or clay levees for river levels up to 35 feet. At 38 feet, only seven properties are affected, requiring 33,000 sandbags and possibly two-fifths of a mile of clay levees.

At 40 feet, 38 properties in Moorhead are affected, requiring 163,000 sandbags and possibly two miles of levees. Zimmerman hedged and said some of those temporary levees serve as backup to the sandbagging.

He added that some of those emergency levees protect areas that have been bought out, but not yet cleared, by the city. Permanent levees will take their place by next year, Zimmerman said.

“I can comfortably say I don’t have a lot of concern up to that 40-foot stage,” he said.

Moorhead has four permanent levee construction projects planned for this year and a couple more in 2014, Zimmerman said. In all,

$16 million in projects remain before Moorhead is protected to 42.5 feet.

Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt said he would be watching the flood outlook closely today. Generally, no residences in Cass County are affected up to 35 feet, but roads begin to wash out, he said.

When the river hits 38 feet: “That’s where the first subdivisions start to be threatened,” Berndt said, such as Chrisan, south of Fargo. “Every foot from there is many, many more areas that are inundated.”

One major change in the county is that there is now a permanent levee near U.S. Highway 81 on 88th Avenue South. It was only a temporary levee in 2011.

Berndt said it should protect everything between Highway 81 and 25th Street, including Round Hill and Grandberg.

In Clay County, Oakport is protected up to 42 feet, said Bryan Green, the county’s emergency management director. Green said Georgetown is also well protected.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518