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Erik Burgess, Published April 24 2013

After making 1.1 million sandbags, Fargo may need just 100,000

FARGO - City officials here say protecting Fargo from flooding this spring will take 1.3 million fewer sandbags than anticipated earlier this week, as a new forecast released by the National Weather Service on Wednesday spurred city officials to dial back flood protection by 2 to 3 feet.

That means after making more than 1 million new sandbags, the Fargo flood fight is now expected to require only 100,000 bags.

Volunteering efforts that were planned today were called off and sandbag deployment is nearly complete, given the less-severe forecast, which predicts a crest between 38 feet and 40 feet sometime late next week.

Work will begin Friday on building sandbag levees 3 feet lower than the 43-foot level once planned.

“We’re all going to 40 feet. We know what that is. It’s about 100,000 bags,” City Administrator Pat Zavoral said in a flood preparation briefing Wednesday. A flood forecast released earlier this month had city officials on high alert, ready to throw 1.4 million sandbags to build to 43 feet, with earthen levees going to 44 feet, in order to defend against a potentially record flood of 41 feet or worse.

The record of 40.84 feet was set in 2009. A crest in Fargo of 38 feet would be the fifth-largest in recorded history, about a foot lower than 2011 and a foot higher than 2010.

Volunteers logged 40,000 total hours at Sandbag Central over two weeks’ time, making about 1.15 million new sandbags for the city to add to the 685,000 left over from previous flood fights, according to Bruce Grubb, the city’s enterprise director.

But the updated forecast released Wednesday says the Red River here is expected to rise to 37 feet by next Wednesday, with the crest likely by the end of next week – the range depending in part on a system that could drop heavy rain in the area early next week.

No room for error

City leaders and staff reiterated Wednesday that there’s no room for error when it comes to flood fights.

“The bags have been placed,” said Mayor Dennis Walaker. “Whatever bags we don’t use that stay on the pallets, we will pick up immediately and return them and save them for future flood fights. So there’s no waste there.”

“We either rely on the National Weather Service or we don’t,” Walaker added. “But who is going to be there if we fail?”

The forecast released Wednesday warns of the possibility of heavy rain – between a quarter inch to 1.5 inches – next week on Tuesday and Wednesday, said Greg Gust, a warning coordination meteorologist.

Forecasters expect the eventual crest in Fargo to be on the bottom range, near 38 feet, if there is little or no additional rain. The lower figure also takes into account soil infiltration and peaks on the Red River and Wild Rice River happening at different times.

The higher end of the crest range, near 40 feet, is what the weather service expects if the region gets an inch or two of rain.

Rapid runoff is expected to begin this weekend when temperatures – which have yet to break 50 degrees this spring – rise to the mid-60s, with morning lows above freezing.

Gust said the soil in Cass and Clay counties still hasn’t opened up, and that the still-melting Wild Rice River remains an unknown factor, meaning predicted levels in the Red could still change.

Gust said a more exact prediction of next week’s crest could be released by forecasters today.

A seven-day prediction hydrograph released Wednesday showed the river level in Fargo rising through next Wednesday, but Gust said graphs released today or Friday could begin to top off and show a potential crest.

“I would expect by Friday (the model) will see it clearly,” he said.

City’s plans take hold

Sandbag delivery was completed in Fargo on Wednesday, with enough bags deployed to protect to 41 feet in most areas that received bags Wednesday.

In preparation for a potential record flood, crews spent Tuesday deploying enough sandbags into north Fargo to build to 43 feet, enough to hold back a 41- or 42-foot flood with some freeboard.

By Wednesday night, city officials had decided to only throw sandbags up to 40 feet. The extra bags will stay in the neighborhoods in case of emergency.

City Engineer April Walker said making and deploying extra bags helps safeguard against the possibility of a severe rain.

“We definitely have enough product on hand to be there to react to it,” she said. “It’s better for us to be over-prepared than underprepared, obviously.”

About 1,500 students from the public high schools are planning to throw bags Friday, said Jim Gilmour, Fargo’s planning director.

City officials expect it will take one day of work to build sandbag walls. Gilmour said in 2011, with students’ help, it took about a day and a half to put 700,000 bags in place.

Work on an earthen levee on Second Street downtown should start Friday evening, said Col. Michael Price of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That work should finish up this weekend, meaning the First Avenue North Bridge will be closed starting Monday.

The toll bridge that connects Fargo’s 12th Avenue North to Moorhead’s 15th Avenue North will likely close by the end of this week, Walker said.

Sandbags still need to be delivered to the flood-prone Oakcreek neighborhood in south Fargo, where crews are finishing up demolishing eight city-owned homes and constructing a temporary earthen levee.

Cass also dials back

If a 40-foot flood comes, Cass County will be ready with 550,000 bags already made, said county administrator Keith Berndt. Earlier plans to make 200,000 more bags for the county have been nixed, he said.

About 100,000 bags have already been deployed south of Fargo, with deliveries north of Fargo and along the Sheyenne River corridor to begin today.

It’s important for rural residents to get materials ready now because some county roads begin to wash out at a 35-foot river stage, which is expected by Tuesday, said County Engineer Jason Benson.

An earthen levee in the Chrisan area is nearing completion, and work in Forest River will begin today or Friday. The county is considering using a rapidly deploying TrapBag levee in Forest River instead of an earthen levee, Berndt said.

He said contractors are waiting in the wings and could be mobilized “very quickly” if the flood rapidly worsens following any rainfall next week.

In Wednesday’s updated outlook, forecasters lowered the predicted crest for the Red River in Wahpeton from 16.5 feet to 15 feet. It’s expected to peak Monday.

Gust said between 8 to 12 inches of soil in those areas are now saturated, which is why forecasters believe the crest there will be lower.

Major flood stage on the Red River in Wahpeton is 14 feet, and the record flood in 1997 was 19.42 feet. In 2009, the Red peaked at 17.5 feet there. A 15-foot crest would be the 12th-worst in recorded history.

In Hickson, a weather service forecast released about 1 p.m. Wednesday predicted the river will top out between 36 and 38 feet early next week. Moderate flood stage in Hickson is 34 feet. The major flood stage is 38 feet, and the record in 2009 was 39.04.


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