Swollen rivers across Minnesota were surging to their long-anticipated second spring crests, with the Red River expected to hit its peak in Fargo late Saturday, a day or two earlier than expected.
In the east metro, the Stillwater Lift Bridge closed Friday. The St. Croix River's behavior in coming days will determine how long the major commuter route is diverted.
Gov. Mark Dayton visited Stillwater's reinforced levee Friday and will visit Moorhead Saturday. He said Minnesota "is definitely ready" to handle what comes. "But if the weather stays dry, I think we'll -- knock on wood -- squeak through," he said. "You just have to wait and see how things unfold."
The National Weather Service said the Red will peak at 39 to 40 feet Saturday night into Sunday. The previous forecast called for a late Sunday or Monday crest. The river went over 38 feet Friday in the third year in a row of major flooding in the southern Red River Valley. The 2009 flood had a record crest of 40.84 feet.
Three deaths in the past few days have connections to flooding on the Red. On Wednesday, Quentin Goehring, 73, died of an apparent heart attack while sandbagging at his farm in Oakport Township, Minn., near the Red River. On Friday, authorities in North Dakota's Cass County found the bodies of beaver hunters Michael Miller, 59, and Dewey Grieve, 69, both of Buffalo, N.D., near their capsized boat on the flooded Maple River, which feeds into the Red. Sheriff's officials said that the strong current in the area may have played a role in their deaths.
At Breckenridge, Minn., where the Red River begins, former Wilkin County Highway Engineer Tom Richels said the city was "looking good" after an initial crest Thursday. The crest at Breckenridge signals what lies ahead for cities downstream, including Fargo, Moorhead and Grand Forks.
"If we'd gotten this weather two weeks ago, we'd have been in trouble," Richels said, noting the 55-degree temperature Friday afternoon. Instead, the remains of 90 inches of snow melted slowly in recent weeks.
That knocked out some rural roads, but the Minnesota Avenue Bridge between Breckenridge and Wahpeton, N.D., has remained open.
Richels, who helped Wilkin County fight more than a dozen floods before retiring, frequently notes that each flood is unique. Indeed, conditions in the southern Red River Valley between Breckenridge and Moorhead were dramatically different Friday than in the weeks leading up to crests in 2009 and 2010.
Those crests occurred unusually early, in March, with fields still covered by deep snow and rivers thick with ice. Friday, fields in the area held some standing water, but were mostly black except.
In Fargo and Moorhead, Friday night seemed almost routine compared to 2009, when residents were frantically filling and stacking sandbags in heavy snowfall in the final hours before the crest. In downtown Moorhead, people streamed to the top of a downtown parking ramp to view the massively swollen Red River.
"Everybody is much more relaxed," said Fargo resident Ken Calkins. "Borderline complacent."
In 1997, Calkins filled sandbags at his own home and delivered them by boat to his parents' home in Fargo to protect their property. Friday night, he was shooting pictures from the top of the parking ramp. "If the rain holds off, I think we'll be OK," he said.
Thursday's crest at Breckenridge was nearly 4 feet below the 1997 record. A diversion ditch, dug after the record flood, was carrying 60 percent of the river's flow Friday; empty last month, it was running 16 feet deep Thursday.
The second crest at Breckenridge is expected next Thursday, and slightly higher than the first. That rise will be due to the release of water by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Lake Traverse, at the head of the Bois de Sioux River, which feeds the Red.
Rain through the weekend is "still a significant threat" to prolong Red River crests, the Weather Service indicated Friday.
St. Croix, Mississippi rising
In Stillwater, the moveable span of the Lift Bridge was raised several feet above the rising St. Croix. Traffic on detour routes around Stillwater was busier than usual on a beautiful spring Friday.
"We're aware of what kind of effect it has," said TK Kramascz, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, of the bridge's closing.
At 6 p.m. Friday, the National Weather Service gauge at Stillwater was at 86.5 feet. By 6 p.m. Sunday, it was forecast to hit 87 feet -- officially flood stage. The river at Stillwater was set to plateau by midweek at just under 88 feet, considered "moderate" flooding.
On the Mississippi, the pattern was similar at St. Paul and Hastings. At 6 p.m. on Friday, the gauge was at 18 feet, and was heading for a peak of 18.8 feet by early Tuesday before beginning to recede. A level of 17 feet is considered "major" flooding in St. Paul.
Deb Paige, Washington County emergency management director, said the county will begin assessing damage as soon as next week.
Minnesota has 200 National Guard members on flood duty on the Moorhead side of the Red. Thousands more in North Dakota are on standby if needed. Local officials said Friday they are worried about the participation of other federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, because President Obama has signed only a limited disaster declaration that doesn't provide federal funding for levees and other flood protection costs.
Dayton said that, despite the threat of a federal government shutdown, he is confident mechanisms are in place to get federal aid if it's necessary.
"We'll proceed rapidly if it comes to that," he said.
University of Minnesota student reporter Mara Van Ells and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999