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Erik Burgess, Published April 27 2013

Sandbagging goes quickly as Fargo expects major but manageable flood; Red appears to crest in Wahpeton

FARGO – John Peterson watched as about 150 high school students stacked sandbags in his north Fargo neighborhood of Elm Circle, the icy river behind them finally flowing.

But even as the river was rising, the sandbag walls often weren’t. With dikes citywide only going to 40 feet, some sandbag piles weren’t more than six inches off the ground. For Peterson, it was a far cry from 2009, when he needed sandbags walls that were two or three feet high.

“In 2009, I literally woke up at 3 in the morning in a cold sweat just because you didn’t know what was coming,” he said. “This year, there hasn’t been any of that sleeplessness.”

In a flood fight requiring just hours of sandbagging instead of days, relaxing got even easier Friday as the National Weather Service released a new forecast again lowering crest expectations for the Red River in Fargo.

An updated version of the forecast released Friday night predicts the Red River will peak in Fargo at 38.0 feet Wednesday.

In Wahpeton, upstream from the north-flowing Red River, the river appears to be receding short of a predicted crest of 15 feet. After reaching 14.39 feet on Friday night, the river had dropped to 14.17 feet by 9 a.m. today.

A 14.39-foot crest in Wahpeton would be the 16th-worst on record, just inches above major flood stage of 14 feet. A flood at the level isn't expected to be a threat in Wahpeton or its border city, Breckenridge, Minn.

Friday's forecast was the first official deterministic crest prediction for Fargo from the weather service, which earlier in the week forecast a crest ranging from 38 to 40 feet.

The forecast lowered the crest range to 37 to 39 feet, partly because the threat of rain next week has dissipated, said Greg Gust, a warning coordination meteorologist with the weather service.

A quarter inch to half an inch could come into the valley on Monday night, with the “lion’s share” going into Minnesota, much less than the 1 to 2 inches predicted earlier, Gust said Friday.

By 9:15 a.m. today, the Red River in Fargo had reached 25.54 feet, just topping the 25-foot moderate flood stage. By 7 a.m. Sunday, the river is expected to hit 30.1 feet, one-tenth of an inch above major flood stage.

About 1,500 high school students spent the late morning Friday throwing almost 100,000 sandbags to prep the city for a 38-foot flood. Sandbag levees will finish up today in the south Fargo neighborhoods of Harwood Drive and Oakcreek, as the city uses about 10 percent of 1.1 million new sandbags filled this spring.

A 38-foot crest would be the fifth-largest Fargo flood on record, but due to flood control improvements since the city’s worst floods in 1997 and 2009, it is expected to be a largely manageable event. The 40.84-foot record was set in 2009.

Until earlier this week, Fargo officials planned to use 1.4 million sandbags to protect to 43 feet after forecasters last week said there was a 40 percent chance of a crest worse than 2009’s.

Even with a lowered crest range, city and county officials advised residents to remain vigilant.

“We keep waiting for this to start. Well, it’s started,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Friday morning at a city briefing.

Work on the Second Street levee will be ongoing this weekend and finish up by Monday morning. It’s the last major levee to be installed across Fargo.

“By Monday at noon, we’d like to be all done,” said Fargo Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney.

‘Comfortable, confident’

Volunteers came and went Friday as sandbagging was done in short order in many neighborhoods. Work in many neighborhoods in Fargo expected to last just two or three hours, said Jeremy Gorden, a Fargo transportation engineer.

Even in rural Cass County, which has seen far less buyouts and new permanent flood control since the record 2009 crest, the work day was often short.

Jason Kaseman, owner of one of the three homes left on the river side of Forest River Road south of Fargo, had planned to utilize about a dozen students from North Dakota State University’s Army ROTC program on Friday afternoon to build a ring dike around his home.

All he could do was scratch his head and laugh when he realized that he and his wife, along with some friends, finished most of the work in the morning.

“I actually had to stop work this morning so they had something to do,” the Army veteran said.

Seventeen ROTC students eventually did show up to finish up the work at Kaseman’s house. Thomas Peterson, a senior and Army ROTC student at NDSU, said despite the lowering crest, they didn’t hesitate when a veteran calls on them for help.

“I was (concerned) up until about yesterday, when the predictions went way down, but I know if it was my home, I still wouldn’t want to mess around,” Thomas Peterson said.

John Miller, who lives along the river on the scenic Orchard Park Drive south of Fargo, hadn’t even pulled the sandbags off the pallets in front of his home by Friday afternoon. He said his home is generally safe at 38 feet.

“We’ve been through it and evacuated twice before. We’re pretty comfortable and confident,” Miller said. “Unless there’s something really unforeseen that happens, we’re staying this year.”

Countless residents sang the praises of the high school students, many of whom sported rubber boots and tore off sweatshirts as the warmest day of the spring got warmer all day.

“We love those kids, absolutely,” said Joan Macdonald, who spent last week making 10 dozen cookies to welcome the high-schoolers into Copperfield Court.

John Peterson planned on ordering pizza for student volunteers in Elm Circle, such as Hunter Slemmons, a junior at Fargo North who said he wanted to sandbag because it’s fun and gets him out of class.

“I don’t think (the water) is gonna touch the sandbags,” he said. “It’s really dry, so I don’t know where we’re supposed to get all this water from.”

The weather service was not the only bearer of good news Friday. President Barack Obama approved an emergency declaration to assist in flood-fighting along this year, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said in a news release. The declaration makes available federal resources to help the counties of Cass, Grand Forks, Pembina, Richland, Traill and Walsh.

Water coming ‘quickly’

Gust said the weather service will likely keep the crest prediction in a range of 1 to 2 feet until the river is 72 hours from peaking.

Flooding in the Red River Basin was “kicking in more quickly now than ‘normal,’” he said Friday, due in part to rising temperatures and the “poised water” that had already been moving slowly in ditches in small streams.

Coincidental crests between the Wild Rice and Red River could still cause problems in Fargo, bumping the crest up near the higher 39-foot range, said Mark Ewens, a weather service meteorologist.

It’s been a “tale of two melts” this season, Ewens aid. Snow on the Minnesota side, feeding tributaries and the headwaters of the Red, is already melted and moving, but fresher powder on the North Dakota side, feeding the Wild Rice basin, is lagging behind.

They could continue to lag behind each other, but it all depends on the warmup, Ewens said. “If we do get consistent 60, 70 degree temperatures over the next three, four days into Tuesday, it will all go very quickly,” he said.

It’s expected to be in the mid-60s through at least Monday, after hitting 65 in Fargo on Friday – breaking the 50-degree barrier for the first time this spring.

This morning, it was already 56 degrees before 10 a.m. in Fargo.

Prior to this year, the latest Fargo hit 50 degrees was April 18 – a record set in 1881, the first year official weather records were kept here.

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