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Fargo rushes to block Red River flooding

Residents and volunteers in the North Dakota city work to reinforce a man-made barrier, bracing themselves for a record-breaking crest.

March 27, 2009|Ashley Powers and P.J. Huffstutter

FARGO, N.D., AND CHICAGO — As snow continued to fall Thursday across North Dakota's frozen plains, weary volunteers and frantic residents in Fargo scrambled to bolster the 12-mile-long man-made barrier that was holding back the Red River.

Officials in the city of 90,000 also were busy preparing a plan to evacuate major sections of Fargo -- which they acknowledged would be difficult given the number of roadways being blocked by the rising water. Mandatory evacuations were ordered as a precaution in one neighborhood Thursday night after cracks were found in an earthen levee, the Associated Press reported.

"This is uncharted area," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker told reporters earlier, noting that the river had risen 9 feet in three days. "We've never been in anything like this before."

The rush came as federal officials warned Thursday that the water might crest as high as 43 feet on Saturday -- more than a foot above earlier predictions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 29, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
North Dakota flooding: In Friday's Section A, a graphic with an article on the Red River's rise said the record crest for Fargo, N.D., was 39.6 feet in 1997. The city's record was 40.1 feet in 1897.

With nearly all of North Dakota already affected by flooding or under flood warnings, President Obama declared 34 counties and two Native American reservations federal disaster areas.

Across the state, wintry conditions hampered efforts to protect homes and rescue stranded residents. Outside Bismarck, people were evacuated as emergency crews used explosives to break up ice jams on the Missouri River.

In Fargo, daily life stopped as thousands of residents joined the effort to fight the Red River, which flows north along the Minnesota border. People filled bags with sand and clay at the Fargodome, while hundreds of others began reinforcing the city's man-made dike in hopes of protecting residential areas and key city facilities -- including its water and waste-water centers.

The mood was tense, Fargo police Capt. Tod Dahle said. Authorities arrested several people, including one television reporter, for climbing up on the dike to view the rising river. Interstate lanes had been closed, as were about half a dozen bridges between North Dakota and Minnesota.

Along the open roadways, snowplows worked around the clock to clear the way for trucks hauling sandbags.

In the southern parts of Cass County, rescue crews in boats and helicopters pulled dozens of residents off rooftops, and islands formed as the water squeezed through sandbags and began flooding homes, sheriff's officials said.

For many residents, the rising waters brought back painful memories. When the Red River flooded in 1997, it caused billions of dollars in damage in Grand Forks and forced tens of thousands of people in North Dakota to flee their homes.

Molly McBride, 20, flew home from college to help her mother prepare. The family lives a mile from the river and, in 1997, had 2 inches of water in the basement, she said. That's where her room is -- along with her favorite wicker chair, which her late grandmother gave her.

Fargo seems better prepared this time, McBride said. "The whole city is just sandbags and volunteers."

But she remembers water damage all too well. "It gets inside the house, and it stinks and it reeks."

And this time, the river was expected to remain at peak levels for as long as a week.

"You've had blizzard conditions across the state, following on the heels of recent rains," said Patrick Slattery, a spokesman for the National Weather Service. "The ground is so saturated, nothing else can soak in. There's nowhere for the water to go."

In the last five days, Walaker said, volunteers had filled and stacked 2.5 million sandbags. Emergency officials estimated that in order to raise the city's dike above expected water levels, an additional half-million bags would have to be in place today.

The man-made barrier runs a few yards in front of Diane Nordhougen's farmhouse, which is set amid corn fields on the city's southwest side.

For much of the last week, she spent her evenings in the basement, boxing up holiday decorations and photos of her three sons and hauling them upstairs. Then a couple of days ago, the rising waters blocked her way home from work.

So her husband, Bryan, has been working alone in their ice-covered front yard, filling sandbags and hauling them up the dike, more than 40 feet in the air. At times, he said, the snow has been falling so fast and thick that the volunteers couldn't see where the dike ended and the river began.

He told his wife over the phone Thursday that he was exhausted. And given the new flood predictions, the city's protective wall is too low.

"I asked him today, 'Are you ready to walk away from the house?' " Diane Nordhougen said. "He said, 'I guess I better go pack a bag.' "

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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