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Flooded Fargo divides the day between church, city’s salvation

Grain silos are reflected in floodwater Sunday  in Halstad, Minn., about 35 miles north of Fargo, N.D.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Grain silos are reflected in floodwater Sunday in Halstad, Minn., about 35 miles north of Fargo, N.D. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

FARGO, N.D. – Weary residents of this sandbagged city came together in churches Sunday, counting their blessings that the Red River finally stopped rising and praying the levees would hold it back. A brief levee break that swamped a school provided a warning of the kind of threat they face in the days ahead.

People gathered at churches after a week of round-the-clock sandbagging. They sang hymns and held hands, asking together for divine help in avoiding disaster.

“At a time like this, we need to call on God’s providential assistance,” said the Rev. Bob Ona, pastor of Fargo’s First Assembly of God church. “All of you have been heroic in your efforts. All of you have been pushed past the wall of weariness, exhaustion and numerous frustrations in order to do the right thing: help people in the name of the Lord.”

The Red River continued its slow retreat Sunday after cresting a day earlier, dropping below record level to 39.88 feet. City officials have said they would breathe easier when the river falls to 37 feet or lower, expected by Saturday, meaning a lengthy test for sandbag levees that residents hastily constructed last week.

Fargo faces another test this week as a storm approached with up to a half-foot of snow and powerful wind gusts that could send ferocious waves crashing into and over the already-stressed levees.

The sandbag effort resumed Sunday as helicopters began dropping 11 one-ton sandbags into the river to deflect its violent current and keep it from eroding vulnerable areas of the dike system.

The aerial effort also included an unmanned Predator drone used to watch flood patterns and ice floes and provide high-definition information to teams on the ground. North Dakota has more than 2,400 National Guard troops engaged in the flood fight across the state.

The helicopter sandbag effort was focused on an area of the river that put another scare into the city during the night when it burst past a levee and submerged a Lutheran school campus.

Oak Grove Lutheran Principal Morgan Forness said city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Guard unsuccessfully tried to contain the gushing water after a floodwall buckled around 1:30 a.m. The water kept spreading and “we couldn’t contain it. … it’s inundating all of the buildings,” Forness said.

“The campus is basically devastated. They fought the good fight. They lost, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Mayor Dennis Walaker said.

“Those things will continue to happen. I guarantee it.”