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Patrick Springer, Erik Burgess, Helmut Schmidt and Emily Welker, Published March 31 2013

The new flood fight: What’s different since 2009’s record crest

FARGO - Four years ago today, those who had fought a Red River flood as big as anyone alive had ever seen were just starting to assess damages or breathe a sigh of relief as the river slipped below 38 feet and thoughts turned to cleanup.

In the months and years after, those thoughts moved on to protection. City and county officials have spent hundreds of millions since 2009 in hopes of making fighting floods easier.

The Fargo-Moorhead area may be in for another major flood this year, as the latest forecast from the National Weather Service gave the river a 50-50 shot of topping 38.1 feet in Fargo and a 10 percent chance of a record-setting 40.9 feet.

So here is a rundown of what to expect in this year’s flood fight after four years of bolstering flood defenses.

Cass County to look much the same

Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt makes no bones about it. Compared to the cities, outlying areas in Cass County have seen less flood protection added in the past four years.

Since 2009, dozens of low-lying homes have been bought out. In some cases, buyouts have emptied entire subdivisions, such as Heritage Hills at the confluence of the Wild Rice River and the Red River just off 88th Avenue South.

But those buyouts came largely from federal funds, and county commissioners have reserved revenue from a flood protection sales tax for the proposed $1.8 billion Red River diversion project – a 35-mile channel to divert floodwaters around the metro area that has yet to win approval or funding from Congress.

“The commission isn’t inclined to go spend money when they’ve put their efforts into that, instead,” Berndt said.

It’s not merely a policy decision. The county’s more sparse population throws off the cost-benefit analysis of wider flood mitigation on a piece-by-piece basis.

“You can’t justify a $5 million expenditure for $200,000 worth of houses,” Berndt said.

For a 38-foot flood, county officials estimate they’ll need 500,000 sandbags – constructed for the first time this year in cooperation with the city of Fargo.

At higher flood stages, the county’s sandbag needs increase significantly.

South of Fargo, Berndt said the hot spots will be much the same as in recent floods, the subdivisions just south of Fargo.

Three segments of what were built in 2009 as temporary levees are still in place for those areas, including the Chrisan neighborhood east of County Highway 81, the subdivisions along the river of 76th Avenue South and the Round Hill area just north of 88th Avenue South.

Berndt said the county will begin building the rest of that levee when the river is 35 feet and rising, waiting as long as possible because the levee cuts off access to some homes. But because of the still-standing portions, the levee will be constructed quicker.

About a dozen houses will be stuck on the wet side, he said. Many homeowners there are familiar with saving their homes from floods, and Berndt said “pretty innovative” plywood and plastic dike structures are common there.

In rural Cass County immediately north of Fargo, the Stockman’s, North River and Highland Park subdivisions had their clay levees raised and improved since 2009, Berndt said.

Stockman’s and North River are protected to about 40 feet, while Highland Park is protected to about 39 feet. Northwood Drive homes, north of Highland Park along County Highway 31, are vulnerable at 37 feet, he said.

“If they’ve got a non-certified levee (in those subdivisions), one or two feet of freeboard is not a real comfortable thing,” Berndt said.

Berndt said the Highland Park area may get fast-deployment barriers, and the neighborhood association will make the call on whether clay needs to be put down on Highway 31.

Farther north, County Highway 22 is topped by flooding stages of 38 to 39 feet, Berndt said. The road may be kept open with markers placed on each side of the road to let traffic move through slowly.

Berndt said 14th Street Northwest, a township road a mile west and parallel to County Highway 17, was also raised since 2009.

The County Highway 17 corridor is also regularly beset by overland flooding.

“Once the Sheyenne starts flooding, it stays for weeks. It’s a flood that comes and stays,” he said.

While too late for this flood, the county does have $1 million set aside to build a bridge for Lake Shure Estates, a rural subdivision north of West Fargo, which is often dogged by overland flooding caused by Sheyenne River breakouts.

Fargo hopes

to ‘manage’ flood

It was a “reactionary” event here for city officials in 2009, as the river’s crest came quicker and higher than expected.

With improvements made in the past four years, they hope to make 2013 a “managed” event.

About $40 million of work has been done and 14.6 miles of permanent levees installed in Fargo since 2009, and much of the city is protected to 38 feet.

Through the end of last year, 82 home buyouts had been made since 2009, and 56 more are approved for this year.

That’s reduced the need for temporary measures.

To fight a 38-foot flood in 2013 will take 200,000 sandbags, compared to 700,000 bags needed to fight the same river level in 2009, according to City Engineer April Walker.

Building protection to 42 feet to protect against a 40-foot flood in 2013 will take about 980,000 bags, whereas the city needed nearly 2.5 million bags in 2009, Walker said.

A 41-foot river level this year would take 1.8 million sandbags, whereas in 2009, about 4 million bags would’ve been needed.

The number of temporary levee miles needed is also down this year. Fighting a 41-foot flood this year would take about 11 miles of temporary levees plus about 5 miles of sandbag levees.

In 2009, when the river hit 40.84 feet, there were 46 miles of temporary levees through Fargo. There were 26 miles of temporary levee needed to fight a 39.72-foot crest in 1997.

Part of a temporary levee installed in Rose Creek in 2009 still stands and has become permanent protection. Since 2011, more homes and install flood walls in trouble spots like River Vili, Timberline and Meadow Creek.

But some similar problem spots remain.

Neighborhoods familiar with flood fighting like Oak Creek, Copperfield Court, River Drive, Harwood Groves, Belmont Park and Oak Grove still require sandbagging this year.

Oak Creek and Copperfield Court become jeopardized at a 39-foot river stage. The city hopes to buy out and remove homes from those areas and build permanent levees.

“They’re frustrated that we haven’t been able to act quickly enough and here they are facing another flood fight,” Walker said.

But she and Zavoral said they were confident volunteers would come in droves as they have in the past.

Downtown, not much at all has changed. A levee is still needed along Second Street, with construction starting once the river hits about 30 feet. A temporary levee on Oak Street goes up at a 34-foot river level.

Walker estimates about 200 homes will be affected at the 38-foot river stage.

Moorhead ‘closing door’

The record 2009 flood in Moorhead forced officials to order emergency evacuations for several neighborhoods, largely because of floodwaters infiltrating the storm sewer system.

Four years later, the city has put covers on 57 storm sewer outlets to the Red River – just one of many improvements that make the city much easier to defend against a flood.

Moorhead has bought out more than 200 homes, allowing the city to make significant progress on 11.6 miles of permanent levees to protect the city to a Red River level of 42.5 feet.

The flood protection plan it has embarked upon since 2009 will cost $102 million when complete – an effort that’s 85 percent to 90 percent done, City Manager Michael Redlinger said.

So far, $79 million of projects have been completed. The total is $88 million when projects under contract are counted, he said.

“We’re really getting close to closing the door,” Redlinger added.

Now, most of Moorhead is well protected against a 40-foot flood, City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said.

If a 38-food flood strikes, the city would need just 33,000 sandbags to protect seven homes. The number of sandbags jumps to 163,000 for a 40-foot flood, and to 361,000 if the river reaches 41 feet. The city has 400,000 bags in reserve.

By comparison, it took

2.5 million sandbags in 2009 to protect against a 41-footer,

1.9 million at 40 feet and 670,000 at 38 feet.

At 41 feet, several low-lying areas near the river become vulnerable.

In north Moorhead near the country club, most permanent flood protection is in place. If a 41-foot crest is predicted, a clay levee would be built on the street, Zimmerman said.

In south Moorhead, north of Gooseberry Park, a contingency dike would be needed to protect an area extending from Eighth Avenue to 20th Avenue South.

“There isn’t too much to do there because of the projects we’ve completed,” Zimmerman said.

Overland threat to Clay

Since the 2009 flood, 21 homes have been bought out in rural Clay County, and 50 homes are protected by ring dikes, said Bryan Green, the county’s emergency management director.

Levees protecting Oakport Township now are 98 percent complete, with protection to 42 feet, capable of added protection to 44 feet, he said.

The city of Georgetown is surrounded by a ring dike that is roughly half complete, with a gap for Highway 75, Green said.

If the flood reaches 38 feet, an estimated 80 to 100 households countywide would be affected, Green said.

Rural areas will face the threat of overland flooding from the Red and Buffalo rivers, though.

“We’re going to have overland flooding, no question about it,” said Bryan Green,

Many township roads will start to go under water when the Buffalo River tops 20 feet, including in the Georgetown and Kragnes areas.