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Published April 27 2013

Fargo flood defenses nearly buttoned up

FARGO – A year ago, brothers Chad and Jeffrey McCracken were playing disc golf in Moorhead during a visit to see their grandparents.

On Saturday, with that same Moorhead park under water, the brothers from Maple Grove, Minn., got a lesson in community service in south Fargo, tossing sandbags instead of Frisbees to help protect strangers against spring flooding.

“We thought it’d be a great thing for our kids to experience,” said Betsy McCracken, a Fargo native and mother of Chad, 14, and Jeffrey, who turned 12 years old on Friday.

The family was part of a final push Saturday to button up Fargo’s flood protection.

Volunteers and contractors hustled to complete the last of the sandbag and clay levees as the National Weather Service held to a 37- to 39-foot crest prediction, despite the Red River at Wahpeton appearing to have topped out more than a half-foot below its predicted crest.

“We were hopeful that they would lower our crest, but they didn’t,” Fargo City Engineer April Walker said as she helped volunteers toss some of the 16,000 sandbags laid in Oakcreek, the last neighborhood in Fargo to be sandbagged.

Uncertainty over future precipitation and the rate of snowmelt infiltration had the weather service offering crest ranges instead of a single crest figure at most river points.

Weather service forecasters said rain is likely early this week, with one-quarter to one-half of an inch possible in Fargo on Monday and one-tenth to one-quarter of an inch possible Tuesday.

The Red River at Fargo was at 27.03 feet as of 7:15 p.m. Saturday. It’s predicted to crest between 37 and 39 feet during the middle of this week, the weather service said. The hydrograph on the weather service’s website showed the river climbing to 38 feet by Wednesday and starting to drop Thursday.

Wahpeton sees crest

In Wahpeton, upstream from the north-flowing Red River, the river was receding short of a predicted crest of 15 feet.

After reaching a preliminary crest of 14.39 feet on Friday night, the river had dropped to 13.83 feet by 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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 that level isn’t expected to be a threat in Wahpeton or its border city, Breckenridge, Minn.

Richland County Emergency Manager Brett Lambrecht said the county had a few roads under water along the rivers, and overland flooding inundated the basement of a home near Walcott on Friday, but otherwise no major problems were reported.

In Cass County, water backed up by an ice-plugged culvert briefly overtopped County Road 34 in the Argusville area, but the water quickly receded once the culvert opened up, County Administrator Keith Berndt.

Otherwise, the county had its clay levees built to 40 feet and was in wait-and-see mode, as were county residents near the river, most of whose homes aren’t threatened until it reaches 38 feet, Berndt said. The county delivered about 100,000 sandbags that may or may not be used.

“People are really trying to hold off as long as they can,” he said. “They don’t want to mess up their yards if they don’t have to.”

Fargo work wrapping up

Friday’s crest forecast of 37 to 39 feet was the first official deterministic crest prediction for Fargo from the weather service, which earlier in the week forecast a crest of 38 to 40 feet.

Both forecasts were far below the weather service’s probability-based prediction April 16, which gave this spring’s flood a 40 percent chance of topping 2009’s record of 40.84 feet.

The lower predictions this week allowed Fargo to scale back flood-fighting efforts, laying only 100,000 sandbags after assembling 1.1 million new ones this year.

On Saturday, contractors were busy erecting a clay dike on Second Street North to protect the downtown area, the last city-built levee to finish. The city closed the First Avenue North Bridge at 5 p.m. to make way for the levee, detouring traffic to the NP Avenue and Main Avenue bridges. The 12th Avenue North toll bridge also closed Saturday evening.

Fargo Fire Capt. Randy Weiss said he expects the city will “easily” meet its goal of having flood protection buttoned up by noon Monday.

Clay levee construction will continue today, which is “a stand-down day for pretty much everybody but the earth movers,” Walker said.

‘Coming along great’

Sandbagging in Oakcreek to protect against the rising water in Drain 27, also known as the Rose Coulee, wrapped up Saturday, bringing the total number of sandbagged homes in the city to 134, officials said.

After a record-long stretch without a 50-degree day, Saturday’s temperatures topped 60 degrees for the second straight day, hitting 72 degrees at Hector International Airport, which buoyed levee-building efforts.

“It’s coming along great,” Weiss said. “We couldn’t have better weather for doing this.”

As the sun beat down on the McCracken boys and their father, Mike, the younger brother caught his breath just long enough to describe the first-time experience.

“Tiring,” Jeffrey said.

“It’s just nice to get out and help the community,” his father said.

An Oakcreek resident quickly chimed in that the neighborhood was happy to receive the help, having missed out on the roughly 1,500 high school students who tossed almost 100,000 sandbags Friday in other Fargo neighborhoods. Saturday’s efforts in Oakcreek and Harwood Drive relied on volunteers, firefighters and city engineers.

A CodeRed alert sent out to Oakcreek and surrounding neighborhoods didn’t draw as many sandbagging volunteers as hoped, and Walker asked the press to put the word out for more.

The two-sandbag-high levee built between Oakcreek homeowner Rusty Papachek’s deck and swimming pool took a lot less work than the 3½-foot-tall levee that went up during the record flood of 2009, but he was grateful for his neighbors’ help.

“Everyone kind of comes together,” he said.

Looking ahead to next week, Weiss said the city will continue to staff its emergency operations center.

“If the river does come up and start hitting sandbags, if there’s any breaches, things like that, we’ll be ready to roll on those at all times,” he said. “We’ll kind of just stand by once the dike is up, see what the river’s going to do and be prepared for it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528