With the freezing Red River cresting feet behind him, Vice President Al Gore dug his boots Friday into the damp earthen dikes protecting North Dakota’s largest city from the worst flooding in a century.
“It’s worse than I expected,” he said. “Looking at it from an airplane … really drives home what an extensive area has been hit by this.”
Behind Gore, the water rolled by in the middle of the river but was hidden by a crust of ice toward the sides. Treetops poked through the frozen mess into the sunshine.
By Friday afternoon, the Red was already at its highest level in 150 years - more than 20 feet above flood stage - and swollen to twice its normal width. Cresting was not expected until sometime before nightfall.
“My main message here is very, very simple: You’re not in this alone. The entire United States of America stands with you,” said Gore, accompanied by a thicket of senators, congressmen and other officials.
President Clinton this week signed disaster declarations for North Dakota, South Dakota and 21 counties in Minnesota.
Snowmelt-swollen rivers have been cresting across the prairie that forms the Minnesota-North Dakota border for nearly a week. A blizzard that dumped 2 feet of snow last weekend, after days of 60-degree temperatures, added more snow and ice to the mix.
At least eight people have died from the flood or its effects.
David Lundberg of Minnesota’s division of emergency management said it’s too early to give damage costs. But he said early estimates of $100 million would equal the flood of 1993, the state’s most financially damaging ever.
In southern Minnesota, residents in Granite Falls and Montevideo were reminded Friday to continue boiling water until the Minnesota River recedes. Cresting during the week caused sewage systems to back up in both towns.
The National Weather Service also canceled a flood warning Friday for the Mississippi River at Minneapolis after the river crested overnight at 17.1 feet - 16 feet is flood stage - and began falling.
A flood warning until April 20 remained in effect along the Mississippi from St. Paul to Red Wing, 46 miles to the southeast.
Gore also visited flooded sites in South Dakota and Breckenridge, Minn., where he wound the town’s back streets and saw residents cleaning up after 4 feet of water. Massive sheets of 4-inch-thick ice, fragmented into jagged shards, littered the streets. Gore also talked to flooded residents at Breckenridge’s fire hall.
“You guys making out OK?” he asked Janice Rensvold, who lives outside Breckenridge. Her family took in the entire Barvels family, which was forced to evacuate.
“We’ll get through this,” she said.