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Patrick Springer, Published April 17 2013

Weather service predicts Red River in Fargo to crest at 39 to 41 feet; 40 percent chance of setting record

FARGO – Forecasters on Wednesday advised flood fighters to prepare for a new record crest on the Red River here, with a predicted range of 39 to 41 feet.

That would mean a mid-range crest prediction of 40.3 feet, but forecasters cautioned that the range could be as wide as 38 feet to 42 feet, according to a new prediction released Wednesday by the National Weather Service.

“We encourage people to prepare for a flood of record,” said Greg Gust, a weather service meteorologist.

Fargo now faces a 40 per-cent chance of seeing a new record flood, up from a 15-percent chance predicted in late March, in what is assured to be the latest spring flood on record.

The record 2009 flood crested at 40.84 feet, but this spring has produced an unprecedented late thaw caused by heavy snowpack – now ripe and ready to melt in the southern basin.

Flood fighters must scramble to prepare for a crest in Fargo that could arrive toward the end of the two-week period covered in the forecast.

“The latter part of next week could see a pretty significant warm-up and that could really kick things into gear,” Gust said.

“The window for a likely crest for Fargo starts not next week but probably the week after that,” he added.

A more precise crest prediction, based on flowing water, could come as early as this weekend or early next week. That’s when forecasters expect to see the first significant river responses to the thaw.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the time for skepticism about a significant flood is over, and the city will take the steps necessary to protect the city.

“What it is is reality,” Walaker said of the new forecast. “We don’t have any move right now other than moving forward with our preparations.”

Fargo will build to protect against a 42-foot flood, the maximum in the fore-cast, with at least a foot of freeboard, Walaker said.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the city should go beyond the 500,000 sand-bags that now will be filled, starting today, a goal announced earlier this week. That would give Fargo 1.8 million sandbags in re-serve.

Construction of clay levees will begin next week, starting with Oak Street, as will demolition of seven homes in the Oakcreek neighborhood, Walaker said.

Asked if Fargo will be ready by the time the crest arrives, possibly within two weeks, Walaker answered: “Absolutely. There is no question in my mind that we’ll be ready.”

Rural Cass County will likely see severe flooding from the Red River and its tributaries as well as over-land flooding. Road closures and damage could be widespread, especially at the top end of the flood forecast, officials said.

If the Red River reaches 41 or 42 feet, much of Cass County will be vulnerable to flooding, County Administrator Keith Berndt said.

“Those numbers really start going up,” he said of the list of flood-prone are-as. “At 42 feet there really aren’t very many homes in Cass County that aren’t threatened, in those areas that don’t have protection.”

Along the Sheyenne River, which also could see a new record crest, areas between Kindred and Horace that weren’t seen as threatened earlier now will be vulnerable in light of the new forecast, he said.

Downstream along the Sheyenne, the area north of West Fargo to Harwood will see flooding.

“That area is all vulnerable,” Berndt said. “We have a lot of access issues there.”

Rural subdivisions south of Fargo also are threatened, although houses in some of the lowest areas have been removed through buyouts, Berndt said.

“Those unprotected areas along the Red and Wild Rice rivers are especially troublesome,” he said.

Subdivisions of particular concern on the south side of the Wild Rice River along Highway 81 include Kensington, Rivershore and Robinson.

Cass County staff will meet this morning to come up with a flood protection plan in light of the new forecast, including a deci-sion about whether more sandbags will be needed, Berndt said.

Michael Redlinger, Moorhead city manager, said officials still are analyzing the new forecast and will bring recommendations to the City Council on Monday, including a plan for clay levee construction.

“We’ll just continue to evaluate through the end of this week,” he said, adding that city officials will determine whether new areas of protection will be necessary.

The 400,000 sandbags in storage should be adequate for a flood of up to 43 feet, Redlinger said. Since 2009, Moorhead has bought out more than 200 flood-prone houses. If those houses had remained, the city would need more than 2 million sandbags.

In Clay County, overland flooding from the Red River will be a problem, said Bryan Green, the county’s emergency management director.

“Especially for Georgetown and the Oak-port area this is going to be a new adventure,” he said.

Oakport now is largely protected by new levees up to 42 feet, which can be augmented to 44 feet, although a section including Broadway Street, a north-south thoroughfare paralleling the river, will re-quire a temporary levee, Green said.

Georgetown has a ring dike, but temporary reinforcements must be added, including a gap for High-way 75.

“Basically it’s a lot of new protection we’re going to have to put into place,” Green said. “It’s a lot of work. People have to get busy pretty quick. No more waiting.”

The National Weather Service forecast is based on predictions for temperatures and precipitation over the next two weeks.

The low end of the flood predictions, around 38 to 39 feet, would result from a gradual melt with no significant rains.

The high end of the scale, 41 to 42 feet, would result from a very rapid thaw coinciding with heavy rains in late April and early May, forecasters said.

Temperatures are expected to continue a slow warming trend, though cooler than normal. Temperatures are expected to fluctuate widely in the last week of April, with an enhanced risk of moderate rain.

Bare spots are seeing a few inches of topsoil melt, which might hold an inch or so of snowmelt, but the ground beneath still has a deep layer of frost, limiting the ability of the soil to hold water until it thaws, Gust said.

Before the Sunday-Monday storm dropped wet snow over the valley, the forecast called for a 50 percent chance of a flood surpassing 38.1 feet, with a 5 percent chance of topping 41.3 feet.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522