FARGO, N.D. – Fargo’s fears of a catastrophic flood eased Saturday with word that the Red River apparently crested at lower-than-expected levels, and weary residents turned their attention to ensuring their hastily built levees hold up against an onslaught of ice-laden water expected to stay high for at least a week.
National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Hudson said the Red River began receding Saturday morning, surprising residents who were bracing for a crest today. But the river can still fluctuate up to a foot and may remain at dangerous levels for a week, meaning people will still have to wait several days before they are completely safe.
“The best news we can take from this is the river has crested,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said. “But diligence is going to have to be required for at least eight more days and hopefully things will continue to drop.”
Forecasters say the river is retreating because cold temperatures have been freezing water that normally would be flowing into the river. By the time that water thaws, the biggest flooding threat should have passed, Hudson said.
The weather service said the river crested around midnight at 40.82 feet. As of 5:15 p.m., it had dropped to 40.53, a significant shift from earlier forecasts that predicted the river would crest as high as 43 feet – the same level as the dikes protecting Fargo.
Despite the revised forecast, officials did not back down in their efforts to fend off the floodwaters, deploying high-tech Predator drone aircraft, calling up more National Guard troops and asking residents to form neighborhood dike patrols to look for any breaches in levees.
Walaker and other officials have made it clear that they welcomed the extra help from residents to monitor the sandbag dikes hastily assembled to protect his city of 92,000 – while remaining confident that residents could make it out of town at the last minute if they had to.
“It’s critically important that we’re vigilant in inspecting those levees to ensure they’re stable,” said city engineer Mark Bittner. “We encourage neighborhoods to get together and have their own dike patrols and assist us.”
Such efforts were playing out across Fargo after a week in which residents tirelessly worked to fill sandbags and build up the miles of levees protecting the city. Residents were asked to look for signs that dikes may be taking on water and call authorities if they see a problem.
Bruce Boelter walked the entire length of a roughly mile-long stretch of sandbag dike to eyeball the man-made wall separating his subdivision and the Red River. Neighbor Tony Guck joined him halfway. Each felt a special stake in the dike they helped build.
“If we don’t protect this, it’s gonna get us. It’s basically for our own security,” said Guck, 42.
The flooding has forced hundreds of residents in the Fargo area from their homes and submerged basements and ground floors in an untold number of houses along the river. Emergency crews in boats had to rescue 120 people from their homes in one community north of Fargo, while about 20 percent of households in neighboring Moorhead, Minn., have been urged to leave.