Bitter cold slows rise of swollen Red River
Sat, 28 Mar 2009 14:00:43 GMT —
FARGO, N.D. (AP) " Bone-chilling cold slowed the rise of the already record-high Red River early Saturday as weary volunteers waited and watched to see if all their hard work had been enough to save the city from major flooding.
"Now it's time to stand and defend," said Tim Mahoney, a city commissioner in Fargo.
Millions of sandbags were in place, with 1,700 National Guard troops on patrol monitoring dikes with the help of volunteers looking for cracks in the defenses. The intense effort that brought out students and out-of-towners to help fill sandbags and build up dikes wound down Friday evening.
No major levee breaches or other issues were reported during the night, and officials of the city of 92,000 people said Saturday they didn't immediately need any more volunteers.
Temperatures were in the single digits during the night, preventing snow from melting and feeding the rising river. The Red rose less than a foot Friday, compared to 2.5 feet on Thursday, and forecasters said late Friday that the river would crest Sunday afternoon instead of Saturday.
The National Weather Service predicted the crest at near 42 feet, but said it was still possible the river could rise to 43 feet " the maximum level to which the levees are built to protect the city and nearly 3 feet higher than the record of 40.1 feet set in 1897.
Early Saturday, the river stood at 40.81 feet " more than 22 feet above flood stage " but snow melting as the weather warms during the day was still expected to make it rise more.
Even after the river crests, the water may not begin receding before Wednesday, keeping up the pressure threatening levees put together mostly by volunteers.
Mayor Dennis Walaker told CNN that the threat would linger long past Sunday's predicted crest.
"We have about 8 days of significant concern, and then maybe we can start breathing a little easier."
Authorities in Fargo and across the river in Moorhead, Minn. " a city of about 30,000 people " expanded evacuations Friday across several blocks. About a third of the households in Moorhead had been urged to leave.
President Barack Obama, in his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday, said he was keeping close watch on the Midwest floods and putting the government's full weight behind efforts to prevent disaster.
"We will do what must be done to help," the president said. He repeatedly praised volunteers stockpiling sandbags and building levees, saying "their service isn't just inspirational " it's integral to our response."
Those volunteers had piled sandbags on top of 12 miles of snow-covered dikes, with the frigid weather freezing the bags solid as they worked.
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.
"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."
Federal officials are prepared to shelter and feed 30,000 people for a week, said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. More people than that may be evacuated, but she said officials expect most people would seek help through friends and family first. She said the Coast Guard had participated in 82 rescues by Friday.
In a flooded small community north of Fargo and across the river, fire destroyed a house surrounded by so much water that firefighters couldn't get within 200 feet. More than 100 residents of Oakport Township, Minn., had to be rescued by boat.
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 snow, combined with an early freeze last fall that locked a lot of moisture into the soil. The threat has been made worse by spring rain.
"I think the river is mad that she lost the last time," said engineer Mike Buerkley, managing a smile through his dark stubble as he tossed sandbags onto his pickup truck after working 29 straight hours.
National Guard member Shawna Cale, 25, worked through the night on a dike, handing up sandbags that were 30 to 40 pounds and frozen solid.
"It's like throwing a frozen turkey," said sister-in-law Tawny Cale, who came with her husband to help with the sandbags and then to help Shawna move her valuables as she evacuated.
Around Fargo, crews built a contingency dike system as a second line of defense should the river breach riverside neighborhoods. That placed some homes between two sets of dikes.
"There are people who are angry about being on the wrong side of the dike," said Mahoney, whose home is in one of the "wrong-side" neighborhoods.
"We have a 500-year flood that we're combatting, and we think we're doing as well as we can," Mahoney said.
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