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City officials in Fargo see flood threat easing

Even as another storm approaches, the Red River is receding faster than expected.

March 31, 2009|Ashley Powers

CASS COUNTY, N.D. — Her street was waterlogged, her neighbors' basements muddy pools. A blizzard threatened to dump a foot of powder on her saturated yard, and yet Sonya Carlson refused to go.

She and her husband have poured $1.7 million into their five-bedroom home in a rural expanse south of Fargo, N.D., a city that has been threatened for a week by the bloated Red River. On Monday, as floodwaters receded faster than expected, a snowstorm darkened skies and promised 30 mph winds with the potential to erode makeshift levees.

But the couple had three sump pumps, two furnaces and a generator.

When Deputy Greg Smith -- who was crisscrossing the county checking for residents in distress -- found Carlson, 40, she was siphoning water from her yard over an earthen dike and into floodwaters so vast and gray they resembled a stormy Pacific.

Smith was not surprised.

Drive along the two-lane roads bordered by cornfields here and you'll find folks determined to outlast whatever nature hurls at them.

They stuck out last week's flooding that turned rural neighborhoods into islands and forced authorities to rescue people by helicopter and canoe.

But on Monday, Sheriff Paul Laney again encouraged residents to consider evacuation. If the snowstorm cut off access to remote pockets of the county, he said, there was little deputies could do to help.

Smith has been patrolling these neighborhoods since the Red River began climbing. Along the way, he said, he has run into a number of people like Rob Hansen, who on Monday was sloshing outside his home to repair his fallen mailbox.

A circle of sandbags had kept the floodwaters out of Hansen's home in the Round Hill neighborhood, but his power and water service has been spotty. And while the 62-year-old has water stored in his bathtub, he said he'd prefer not to use it yet: The storm might bring more woe.

Hansen's wife and brother left Sunday night, but he stayed behind with a sump pump -- telling Smith that he didn't want to leave his house to fate.

As the deputy pulled away, flurries started to fall. The radio broadcast news of a mall closure and the cancellation of a high school sports banquet.

Driving into the community of Briarwood, where a Coast Guard chopper earlier had plucked people off roofs, Smith came across Marsha Kapphahn, 53.

One night last week, her husband, Jim, had put out a call for help. Smith responded, lining up 2,000 sandbags and a college wrestling team to do the lifting. But the water was too high -- they could not get to the house.

The Kapphahns evacuated after fighting the water as long as they could. On Monday, Jim returned to find their 2,000-square-foot home half-filled with water.

They would not be moving back in soon.

Smith told Marsha: "I'm glad you're safe."

Although his home in West Fargo is safe, Smith said, he understands the resolve in these rural neighborhoods -- and, in the same situation, he'd probably stay to fight the water. In his department-issued Chevy Impala, he keeps pictures of daughters Haley, 9, and Skyler, 7, under the visor.

The deputy then made his way to Selkirk, where a scarecrow waved in knee-high water amid the mobile homes-turned-houseboats.

Resident Wendy Johnson told Smith that when she and her boyfriend, Greg Oster, evacuated Thursday, he had tried to drive his fully restored 1960s Chevy Camaro through churning water. It died and had to be towed out.

Oster came back to stay Saturday night with the couple's dog, Reggie. Johnson, 46, returned briefly Monday to find there was no running water. The couple talked 10 times a day, she said, but she still couldn't sleep at night, and the blizzard was coming. Maybe, she asked, Smith could order him to leave?

Smith has a linebacker build, close-cropped black hair, blue-green eyes and an understanding smile. He mustered one.

Meanwhile, the storm was coating tree branches white.

In the city of Harwood, the "Welcome" sign was ringed by icy floodwaters. Smith met up with fellow deputies who had delivered blood pressure and thyroid medication to a 61-year-old woman. The roads near her home had been washed out, and Smith looked at the sky with worry.

He figured that, later in his 12-hour shift, he'd return to the Kapphahns' neighborhood. He'd knock on doors and, if the residents had run from the storm, he would mark their homes with caution tape.

He circled back along a slick county road. A sign warned him to watch for high water.

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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