April 1, 2009 in Nation/World

Red River swells toward record level

Battling snow, wind, Fargo redoubles sandbagging efforts
Minneapolis Star Tribune
 

By the numbers

39: Red River’s level by midday Thursday.

39.57: Where the Red cresgted in 1997

40.1: The record number from 1897

41: Where the Red is expected to crest over the weekend

FARGO, N.D. – Shifting from confident to jittery, flood fighters in and around Fargo intensified their dike-building Wednesday after a dire new forecast called for the Red River to swell to its highest level ever by Saturday.

Authorities used airboats, helicopters and large military trucks to rescue dozens of trapped residents in the North Dakota towns of Oxbow and Abercrombie. And if the rising river weren’t enough to heighten anxiety, eight inches of snow blew in with ice and wind to handicap sandbagging efforts and close highways not already swamped with floodwater.

“It’s uncharted territory,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said. “If nature has anything else to throw at us, it’d have to be a tornado.”

The mayor pleaded for more sandbag volunteers and urged exhausted crews to raise the dikes another foot – to 43 feet – before Saturday’s expected crest of 41 feet. That would eclipse the 1897 record level of 40.1 feet in Fargo and the 39.57 feet reached during the devastating 1997 flood.

Beginning today, Fargo officials will start distributing evacuation information.

“People are starting to get worried,” said Robin Mattson, a staff sergeant with the Minnesota National Guard, supervising intersections across the river in Moorhead.

When one resident tried to drive his sand-filled pickup over an earthen levee, police were called to issue a warning.

“He ignored the National Guard to put his own sand in, endangering everyone else,” Mattson said.

For the most part, though, neighbors continue to help each other in an overwhelming spirit of cooperation. For a while Wednesday afternoon, Moorhead resident Scott Peterson worried he wouldn’t get enough sandbags to raise his backyard dike the extra foot authorities have requested.

Just then, a group of college students arrived along with a truck towing a trailer of sandbags.

“If it wasn’t for Concordia College,” Peterson said, “our neighborhood would be under.”

In Oxbow, a small town just south of Fargo, water from the Red spilled onto several residential streets, trapping homeowners. Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said airboats helped on a dozen rescues and he anticipates many more in coming days.

“A large number of people are in their homes and we know they’re going to need to come out,” he said, adding that airboats and military trucks are the only vehicles that could pass through some of the streets submerged in 2 feet of standing water.

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