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Erik Burgess, Published March 21 2013

Fargo plans to build protections to 42.5 feet after getting bleak new flood forecast

FARGO - After receiving a bleak forecast on how spring’s slow start is increasing the risk of a severe flood, city officials here are planning to protect against a 2009-level flood – a task that will require laying around 1 million sandbags.

At a news conference Thursday morning, city officials said they hope to have 1.25 million bags stocked away by the time the snow melts in order to build the city’s flood protection to 42.5 feet, which would provide defenses for a record 41-foot flood with 1.5 feet of freeboard.

Sandbag central, the city-run sandbag-making operation, will open April 3 with the aim of making 500,000 new bags to add to 750,000 still left over from 2011 – the last of three consecutive years of spring floods that required widespread efforts to hold back.

“I know it’s getting extremely old for everybody, but we will do what’s necessary,” Mayor Dennis Walaker said.

The National Weather Service said Thursday morning that the Red River in Fargo has a 50 percent chance of topping 38.1 feet when it floods this spring and a 10 percent chance of exceeding 40.9 feet, which would top the record-setting crest of 40.84 feet in 2009.

The chance a 41.3-foot Fargo flood is 5 percent, the weather service predicts.

“There is virtually no scenario that creates a no-flooding situation,” said Greg Gust, a meteorologist with the weather service office in Grand Forks.

Cass County officials also said Thursday that they’ll need 500,000 bags to protect against even a 38-foot crest.

A 38.1-foot crest would be the fifth-worst on record in Fargo, worse than floods in 1969, 2006 and 2010.

Fargo resident Sue Cavett, who lives in the flood-prone Oak Creek neighborhood, said she is worn down from fighting floods.

“I don’t think anybody wants to keep throwing sandbags,” she said. “A lot of people have gotten exhausted.”

No spring in sight

The updated flood forecast predicted a higher risk of severe flooding than in the last probability-based forecast two weeks ago, when meteorologists put the chances of exceeding 38.2 at 5 percent.

Unusual cold and snowy weather in March is driving the increased flood risk. Water content of 6 inches is common in the southern Red River Valley basin, south and east of Wahpeton, and the overall snowpack in the valley is “way above normal,” Gust said.

Gust said melting isn’t expected until early April, when there is a greater possibility of a rapid warm-up mixed with hard rains, “a potentially volatile mix.”

“That’s when you start looking at those 10 to 20 percent (flood events),” Gust said. “That’s pouring accelerant on a fire.”

While soil in the valley is dry, Gust said late fall rains made a “concrete frost” on the topsoil, which increases the chances for runoff.

According to the forecast, the Red River in Fargo has a 95 percent chance of topping 34.2 feet, a 90 percent chance of going over 34.8 feet, a 75 percent chance of exceeding 36.9 feet and a 25 percent chance of hitting 39.1 feet.

The best-case scenario, Gust said, is to hope for a slow melt, like what happened in the spring of 1996.

“That’s one of those scenarios that could happen, but it’s going to be tough,” he said.

In order for that to occur, melting would have to start now, which is unlikely, Gust said. More light snow is forecast in March, paired with below-normal cold.

“Spring is somewhere, but I’m not sure it’s here,” Gust said.

Get ready to work

Officials in both Fargo and Moorhead say improvements in flood control since 2009 have put the cities in a better position to fight a big flood. Since 2009, 14.6 miles of permanent levees have been installed in Fargo, but Deputy Mayor and City Commissioner Tim Mahoney warned that the city will still have to lay 1 million sandbags.

“Get the work gloves ready,” he said, slapping a pair of gloves on the podium at the news conference.

Mahoney expects it will take 10 days to make 500,000 new bags, and the city will be putting out a call to volunteers closer to April 3. More than 2.5 million bags were made in 2009, with at least 100,000 volunteers, Mahoney said.

Fargo City Engineer April Walker said it would take between five and seven days to construct temporary levees, including downtown along Second Street, and city officials have already been in contact with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Sandbags will be placed in “familiar neighborhoods,” Walker said, such as Oak Creek, Copperfield Court, River Drive, Harwood Groves, Belmont Park and Oak Grove.

City Administrator Pat Zavoral said the city is considering demolishing a few city-owned homes in Oak Creek, which were going to be auctioned off. Demolishing the homes would save about 60,000 sandbags, Zavoral said, but the City Commission still has to approve that action.

Cass County has few sandbags in reserve, as most were used in 2011 or were sent across the state to assist other communities, said Keith Berndt, county administrator.

In an emergency meeting at 2 p.m. today, the county commissioners will decide whether to deliver sandbags across the county. Berndt said partnering with Fargo for sandbag-making is possible. The county has one “spider” sandbag-filling machine. Fargo has two.

It’s difficult to project how many more sandbags Cass County would need for a 41-foot flood, Berndt said. The number of bags needed increases “exponentially” with each foot of water above 38 feet, he said.

If the Red hit 38 feet in Fargo, overland floods with the Wild Rice River southwest of Fargo-Moorhead are likely, Berndt said. If the Wild Rice does spill out, a new permanent levee near U.S. Highway 81 and 88th Avenue South protects area subdivisions to a 40-foot river stage with 2 feet of freeboard, Berndt said.

Conditions are ripe for significant overland flooding in Wilkin and southern Clay counties, Gust said, but flooding on the Sheyenne River should be “less troublesome” than in 2011.

In Moorhead, City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said the city should have few concerns up to the 40-foot stage.

At a river stage of 38 feet, 33,000 sandbags are needed in Moorhead. That number jumps to 361,000 at river stage of 41 feet. The city has 400,000 sandbags in storage.

Diversion pitch made

Several city and county officials used the news conference to advocate for the $1.8 billion proposed flood channel around Fargo-Moorhead to protect much of the metro from major floods. The project has yet to be authorized and funded by Congress.

If the diversion is built as proposed, the city of Oxbow south of Fargo would be protected by a ring levee up to a 500-year flood event.

The city’s levee along the Red on the eastern edge of town is built up to 39.5 feet. The 10 percent river stage in Oxbow forecast by the weather service is just shy of that, at 39.3 feet.

“It’d be nice to have a ring dike right about now,” Mayor Jim Nyhof said.

He said Oxbow will need around 7,500 sandbags and some small tie-in levees to protect to that 10 percent event. “This is a bigger flood than the 2010 and 2011 flood,” he said. “It’s getting close to the 2009 flood.”

There are some positive signs, Walaker said. Earlier this month, on his annual drive to look at snow and water conditions in the southern Red River Valley, he predicted the river would hit 32 feet in Fargo.

“I have never seen a fall as dry as it was last fall. Never,” Walaker said. Lake levels are also down 2 to 3 feet, he added.

Walaker will be making an emergency declaration for the city Monday, Zavoral said. That will allow Fargo to possibly be reimbursed for its flood-fighting costs. Since 2009, state or federal money has covered 85 percent of the city’s flood expenses, Zavoral said.

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