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Wendy Reuer, Published April 25 2013

VIDEO: Zoo’s flood shuffle put on hold

WAHPETON, N.D. – Chahinkapa Zoo Director Kathy Diekman was able to take a sigh of relief Thursday, as new forecasts held in predicting the Red River will likely crest here at 15 feet – nearly 4 1/2 feet below the record mark of 19.42 feet in 1997.

She had been preparing for predictions earlier in the week of a crest of more than 16 feet, which would likely have meant moving some animals. The National Weather Service was at one point projecting a 17-foot crest and was forecasting a 16.5 foot crest just two days earlier Tuesday.

Zoo officials were not the only ones to take a sigh of relief in the Wahpeton-Breckenridge area after the prediction was lowered Wednesday.

“We feel very, very comfortable,” Wahpeton Mayor Jim Sturdevant said. “It’s looking good for us.”The higher crest that had been predicted would have required the zoo – which sprawls 18 acres along the Red River – to move 13 species to temporary shelters from their regular habitat between the Red River and an earthen levee built after the 1997 flood.

Despite large snow piles that have yet to melt and kangaroos that saw their first day outdoors Thursday since the onset of winter, the zoo will open as planned Saturday.

“It’s going to be a bit muddy and dirty still, but we’ll be open,” Diekman said.

A delayed opening would have interrupted the school visit schedule in May, when more than 8,000 students will visit the zoo to see its 200 animals from six continents.

In 1997, all animals had to be evacuated and the zoo was shut down until then end of May. Since then, a levee was built cutting the zoo into east and west sides but offering protection from the river up to 16 feet.

While not an easy feat to shuffle wild animals from one place to another, Diekman said the zoo staff has it down to a science after moving animals during floods in 2009, 2010 and 2011 – a maneuver that can be done in an hour.

For the past two years, staff has been working on “training programs’ for the animals, which teach them how to respond to commands to move to dry ground. That way they don’t have to be drugged, Diekman said.

For example, the zoo’s sole rare snow leopard has been trained to enter a small crate on command. If the cat must be moved from its habitat on the east side of the zoo, zookeepers only have to get him in the crate and can carry it over.

The zoo and city officials work together to prepare in case of major flooding. Chahinkapa has become a part of the city’s emergency response plan, Diekman said.

Others areas along the river are even better protected.

Antoinette’s on the River is a café and gift shop that opened less than a year ago in a historic mansion only yards away from the headwaters of the Red River, where the Otter Tail and Bois de Sioux Rivers meet. Co-owner Linda Kutzer said she and partner Brenda Gjesdal haven’t worried much about the rising river.

Kutzer said the slow melt has helped, but the nearby permanent dike offers protection to 22.5 feet and peace of mind.

Red River flood stage in the Wahpeton area is 10 feet, and major flooding occurs at 14 feet. By Thursday, the river had risen to 12.31 feet.

Forecasters said even if heavy rain hits early next week – a system that could bring up to 2 inches, the weather service has said – it would mean only a small bump back up in the river level.

A 15-foot flood isn’t even in the top 10 historical crests here. In 2009, the Red hit 17.5 feet. In 2010, it was 16.49 feet. In 2011, the crest was 15.69 feet.

Sturdevant said the city did not have to do any additional sandbagging of areas, though it does have about 4,000 filled bags on hand for residents to use as protection around house foundations, if needed. He said few had been picked up by residents by Thursday.

Across the Red River, Breckenridge, Minn., officials will install a temporary flood wall on North Main Street today, said Wilkin County Emergency Management Director Breanna Koval.

“(It’s) just to be safe. Other than that, the city seems to be faring pretty well,” Koval said.

The closure and flood wall is a part of the city’s action plan at a river level of 13.5 feet. The Red is forecast to hit 13 feet today and 14.2 feet Saturday before peaking Sunday and falling to 14.8 feet by Monday.

Koval said the rest of the county is doing “OK” as she and residents monitor overland flooding.

“Most of our culverts that are still plugged were unclogged today,” Koval said. “We’re seeing a lot of ice damming right now, but no major issues thus far.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530