With epic floods swamping much of the Great Plains and warmer weather likely to start melting the snowpack across Minnesota and North Dakota, Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney decided Monday not to take any chances.
Mahoney declared a state of emergency for his city in anticipation of spring flooding and is seeking 200 volunteers to begin stuffing 1 million sandbags next week in case the Red River of the North, still largely frozen, crests at 40.3 feet — just below the historic 2009 flood.
“We cannot be complacent,” he said.
The latest forecast indicates “significant” flooding will likely occur in coming weeks along the Red River, which borders northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota and flows north into Canada.
The chance the river will reach major flood stage in the Fargo-Moorhead area has increased from 50 percent to 90 percent, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.
The NWS on Friday nudged the probability of a crest of 40.3 feet to 10 percent. City officials had expected the 10 percent probability threshold to be about 38 feet, said Gregg Schildberger, the city of Fargo communications manager.
He said those who lived through the 2009 flood that swamped parts of Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., recall that forecasters had predicted just a 5 percent chance that the river would reach its historic crest of 40.8 feet.
Schildberger said city officials have been meeting regularly in recent weeks to plan for the spring flood this year. The emergency declaration is required for the city to get repaid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its flood preparations going forward.
“That’s kind of the whole reason for it,” Schildberger said.
Mahoney said Monday that while the city, which sits lower than Moorhead, has made what he called “tremendous strides in our permanent flood protection efforts, this is a very serious flood forecast and we will meet it with a serious response. It is critically important for everyone to know that we will need the public’s assistance.”
In 2009, volunteers filled 7.5 million sandbags to raise the levees and saved the city from catastrophic flood damage. Schildberger said the city sandbagging operation this year would be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., beginning next Tuesday. The goal is to fill 100,000 bags a day over 10 days.
The city has made numerous improvements in its flood preparations since 2009 but still has some areas that will require extra flood protections, said Amanda Lee, a NWS hydrologist and meteorologist covering the Red River Valley. She said the blizzard that struck Grand Forks last week largely dumped rain on Fargo. That water soaked into the snowpack and is sitting atop frozen ground.
Moorhead has also been preparing in the decade since the last big flood, putting up levees and acquiring properties along the river.
Mayor Johnathan Judd plans to sign an emergency declaration Wednesday, said City Manager Chris Volkers.
“So we have less area in Moorhead to protect right now but there are some gaps,” she said. The city is looking for volunteers to stuff about 200,000 sandbags.
The Fargo-Moorhead forecast calls for a gradual warming trend into the 40s and possibly low 50s this week, with temperatures below freezing at night. Lee wouldn’t hazard a guess when the river would crest.
“We can’t quite issue any crest forecasts yet because the melt hasn’t really started,” she said.
Prairie Island gets ready
Meanwhile, the Prairie Island Indian Community in Minnesota has begun making its annual flood preparations and will begin filling sandbags Tuesday.
Volunteers from the Mille Lacs Band of the Chippewa will pitch in Wednesday, along with some members of the Timberwolves basketball and St. Paul Saints baseball teams.
The Prairie Island Indian Community sits on the banks of the Vermillion and Mississippi rivers. Much of its island reservation lies within the flood plain. The community said in a news release Monday that “with few routes on and off the island and Xcel Energy’s nuclear power plant sitting next door, emergency planning is of critical importance — even more so during years of high flood risk.”
With overnight temperatures dropping below freezing, flooding in Minnesota has so far been limited.
On Monday, crews in Jordan continued to try and break up ice that had backed up and caused Sand Creek to spill over its banks late last week, which forced about 300 households in the Valley Green mobile home park to evacuate.
As of Monday night, crews had broken up some of the ice, and water levels in the park had dropped about 1 foot. Still, Police Chief Brett Empey urged residents to be cautious, saying that given the size and severity of the ice jam and the coming warm weather, conditions remain “unpredictable.”
Farther south, in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, damage was far worse.
Hundreds of homes were flooded after rivers breached at least a dozen levees following heavy rain and snowmelt in the region, authorities said Monday while warning that the flooding was expected to linger. About 200 miles of levees were either breached or overtopped, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said. The flooding was blamed for at least three deaths.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, touring flood-ravaged areas of the state for the second straight day, warned that flooding will worsen along the Mississippi River as snow melts to the north.
The NWS said the river was expected to crest Thursday in St. Joseph, Mo., at its third-highest level on record. Military C-130 planes were evacuated last week from nearby Rosecrans Air National Guard base.
In Illinois, NWS readings showed major flooding along the Pecatonica River at Shirland and Freeport, and the Rock River in the Rockford area and Moline.
The Associated Press and Hannah Covington contributed to this report.