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Rising N.D. flood forces painful choices

Red River surges; thousands must tough it out or flee

Allen Fredrickson/REUTERSVolunteers in Fargo, N.D., worked in temperatures barely in the double digits yesterday to place sandbags in an effort to heighten an earthen dike near the Red River. The water is predicted to crest at nearly 3 feet above a record set 112 years ago. Allen Fredrickson/REUTERSVolunteers in Fargo, N.D., worked in temperatures barely in the double digits yesterday to place sandbags in an effort to heighten an earthen dike near the Red River. The water is predicted to crest at nearly 3 feet above a record set 112 years ago. (Allen Fredrickson/REUTERS)
By Patrick Condon and Dan Sewell
Associated Press / March 28, 2009
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FARGO, N.D. - Thousands of shivering, tired residents got out while they could and others prayed that miles of sandbagged levees would hold yesterday as the surging Red River threatened to unleash the biggest flood North Dakota's largest city has ever seen.

Agonizing decisions to stay or go were made as the final hours ticked down before an expected crest tonight, when the ice-laden river was forecast to climb as high as 43 feet, nearly 3 feet higher than the record set 112 years ago.

"It's to the point now where I think we've done everything we can," said resident Dave Davis, whose neighborhood was filled with backhoes and tractors building an earthen levee. "The only thing now is divine intervention."

Even after the floodwaters crest, the water may not begin receding before Wednesday, creating a lingering risk of a catastrophic failure in the levees put together mostly by volunteers.

National Guard troops fanned out in bitter cold to inspect floodwalls for leaks and weak spots, and residents piled sandbags on top of 12 miles of snow-covered dikes. The freezing weather froze the bags solid, turning them into what townspeople hoped would be a watertight barrier.

Hundreds more Guard troops poured in from around the state and neighboring South Dakota, along with scores of American Red Cross workers from as far away as Modesto, Calif.

Homeowners, students, and small armies of other volunteers filled sandbags in frigid temperatures.

The river swelled yesterday to 40.67 feet - more than 22 feet above flood stage and beyond the previous high-water mark of 40.1 feet in 1897. In one flooded neighborhood, a man paddled a canoe amid ice floes and swirling currents.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker cautiously expressed hope that the river would stay below 43 feet - the limit of the reinforced dikes. Walaker said there was not enough time left to build the levees any higher.

Fargo escaped devastation from flooding in 1997, when Grand Forks was ravaged by a historic flood 70 miles to the north. This year, the river has been swollen by heavier-than-average winter snows, combined with an early freeze last fall that locked a lot of moisture into the soil. The threat has been made worse by spring rains.

"I think the river is mad that she lost the last time," said engineer Mike Buerkley, managing a smile as he tossed sandbags onto his pickup truck after working 29 straight hours.

Some 1,700 National Guard troops helped reinforce the dikes and conduct patrols for leaks. Police restricted traffic to allow trucks laden with sandbags, backhoes, and other heavy equipment to get through.

The White House said it was monitoring flooding in North Dakota and Minnesota, and President Obama has dispatched the acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the region. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama has personally spoken with the governors of both states and with Fargo's mayor.

Authorities in Fargo and across the river in Moorhead, Minn. - a city of about 30,000 - expanded evacuations yesterday across several blocks. About 2,600 households in Moorhead were asked to evacuate. Hundreds more in Fargo were asked to leave their homes.

More than 100 inmates were taken from the county jail in Fargo to other lockups in the region, and Moorhead planned to evacuate the police station because of encroaching floodwaters.

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