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Fargo makes a last push before flood crests

Authorities expect that the Red River will peak just below Fargo's 43-foot main dike on Saturday. Residents and emergency workers continue to pack sandbags and monitor dikes.

March 28, 2009|Ashley Powers

FARGO, N.D. — For days, this city has hunkered down for battle with the swelling Red River. Volunteers shoveled sand into bags, heaved them onto forklifts and piled them high to shield waterfront churches and bungalow homes. It was a way to cope with potential catastrophe -- unlike an earthquake, a flood can be anticipated and stopped.

But by late Friday, the 12-mile man-made barrier was complete. Sandbagging wound down. Some neighborhoods, both in Fargo and in neighboring Moorhead, Minn., were evacuated. Nursing homes were emptied. About 1,700 National Guard troops marched into town.

Fargo settled in to wait, and to worry.

The river is expected to crest Sunday, possibly as high as the city's main 43-foot-high dike. Authorities said they had no plans -- and little time -- to make the barrier higher.

"Is that a gamble?" Mayor Dennis Walaker said. "We don't think so."

Sub-freezing temperatures have kept runoff from inundating the waterway, said Patrick Slattery, a National Weather Service spokesman. But it's expected to remain swollen for days, which could weaken the makeshift barriers.

Officials discouraged traveling for much of the day; thousands had already fled the city. Flurries dusted boutiques with darkened windows and empty downtown streets. Tractors and backhoes whirred. Anxious residents had little to do but ponder.

"It's terrifying thinking about what comes next," said Steve Wennblom, 52, who was helping St. John Lutheran Church clear its basement of choir robes and hymnals.

In Fargo, a city of 90,000 with a picturesque red-brick downtown and suburban chain stores, folks are by necessity conversant in water. The plains -- so flat that some locals joke God sat here while creating the world -- are often soaked this time of year, drenched by spring rains and melted snow.

Radio hosts flip like a toggle switch between farm market reports and flood threats. People recall a 1997 deluge with the same clarity as the Sept. 11 attacks. Many folks have pinpointed how high the river can go before their basements become fetid pools. ("I'm 39," they will say.)

On Friday, everyone tracked the river's height with a scientist's precision.

5:15 a.m.: 40.32 feet.

8:30 a.m.: 40.52 feet.

12:45 p.m.: 40.67 feet, and slowly rising.

Joel Davy, 62, an architect who lives just south of a neighborhood under voluntary evacuation, bagged sand this week until his eyes were bleary and his voice hoarse.

"You're not sitting around terrified," he explained. "You're trying to beat it."

His wife, Deborah, 53, an English teacher, joined him after school Thursday. They had just learned the river might reach 43 feet -- far higher than previous predictions and the source of a new local saying: "One more day, one more foot."

Deborah Davy left the Fargodome, a sports venue turned staging ground, at 1 a.m. Friday -- and only because she was told to. Later that day, the Davys strolled through their neighborhood of massive oaks, street lanterns and stately homes. They wanted to help in some way.

All they found were dog-walkers, chain-smokers and signs that warned: ROAD CLOSED. Joel Davy stared at the snow-covered river, which resembled a barren field. His firm had been renovating the riverfront Fargo Country Club. With no distractions, he started wondering: Would his work be destroyed?

"I don't know if the sandbags are going to hold," he said. "At some point they just fail."

A few blocks away, Mark Tokheim, 39, had been roused from bed about 11 p.m. Thursday. Authorities needed volunteers to fortify the earthen levee near his home in another riverfront neighborhood. Several hundred people showed up, and many worked until dawn stacking sandbags they compared to frozen turkeys.

"I saw the water within a foot of the earthen dike, and that made it real," he said. "That's where I'm normally biking. I'd be underwater if I was on the bike path."

About 2 a.m. Friday, the exhausted crew was again reminded of the stakes: A dike to the south had sprung a leak. Authorities knocked on doors and urged homeowners there to evacuate. Tokheim went to bed about 5 but was too amped up for much sleep.

A former Eagle Scout, he packed enough sweat shirts and jeans for a week, and soup and ramen noodles to heat on a propane stove. He gathered water and rolled up a sleeping bag, in case he got trapped in his second-story apartment. He had already hauled childhood photos and his old Tonka trucks from the basement.

Once he had finished, it struck him: He couldn't do much more. He plans to stick around as long as he can, listening to the radio and hoping to somehow help.

"I have a feeling," he says, "I'm going to get another call saying go put another foot on that dike."

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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