Round-the-clock flood preparations paid off in Fargo-Moorhead, where the river appeared to be "running out of steam."
GARDNER, N.D. - The Red River's approaching crest brought a sense of relief to residents of Fargo and Moorhead Saturday, but residents downstream are about to find the table land around them transformed into a vast flowing lake.
"The sun setting over the water is really kind of cool," said Troy Hall, whose 12-acre, ring-diked homestead in this community about 20 miles north of Fargo will soon be an island in the Red River. "It's lakefront property for a couple of weeks."
Fargo and Moorhead residents and leaders took pride Saturday in their months -- indeed, years -- of flood preparation, which included miles of clay and sandbag dikes as well as permanent levees and removal of flood-prone homes and residences.
Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland announced that the scheduled daily news briefing Saturday was his last for 2011. "It looks like the river is running out of steam, which is a good thing," he said.
According to the National Weather Service, the river reached 38.72 feet at 5:15 p.m. and was expected to crest at 38.8 feet late Saturday or early Sunday. That's 2 feet below the historic crest of 40.84 feet that Fargo-Moorhead largely held off in March 2009 with the help of extensive temporary clay and sandbag dikes and an extraordinary volunteer effort.
But rains predicted for Saturday night could complicate the well-prepared flood fight, possibly bringing on a second crest.
Officials in North Dakota's Cass County said tributaries of the Red were causing overland flooding. Rural residents were saying that it was "the worst they've ever seen," County Sheriff Paul Laney said.
The city of Fargo gave the county 30,000 spare sandbags, but no homes had been evacuated by midday Saturday.
When the Red moves through Fargo-Moorhead, it's described as high water. Downstream, outside the flood walls, it's wide water. Very wide.
On Saturday, the Red, typically about a quarter-mile east of Hall's home, was flowing around three sides of his house. His wife and two young kids moved to her mother's place in Fargo Wednesday, where they'll stay during the flood.
Hall can still get to and from work in Moorhead by driving his four-wheel drive vehicle through the water that was flowing 4 inches deep over the paved county road just west of his home. Otherwise, he continues to patrol the dike, pump melted snow out of the yard -- and watch a little golf on television. He described the flood as "an interruption."
Two years ago, when Fargo saw the river reach record heights, Hall's home was almost lost after water and ice tore at the corners of his dike. But he rerouted it and built it higher that year. Now he's confident he can hold the waters off this year, and perhaps future floods he thinks are likely.
"It's a concern," he said. "It's a lot of work. But I feel pretty good, based on how it's close to the crest in Fargo. I'm not absolutely going to guarantee I'm not going to flood, but I'm in good shape."
'Business as usual'
National Weather Service spokesman Jim Scarlett said the river's rise had slowed greatly by Saturday morning. The predicted rain could prolong the high water but isn't likely to raise the crest, Scarlett said. Forecasters believe that the rain will only nudge the crest by "a few tenths of a foot."
The water is expected to remain near its crest into Thursday before dropping off steadily.
The weather service had earlier projected a crest of 39 to 40 feet by late Saturday or early Sunday. That would rank as a top-five crest historically, but still below the levees and dikes erected in Fargo and Moorhead.
Both of Minnesota's U.S. senators attended Saturday's news conference in Moorhead and praised the work that local leaders and volunteers had done in recent months, including clearing more than 100 homes out of flood-prone areas.
But they also voiced strong support for proposed permanent flood protection projects that now carry a price tag approaching $2 billion.
"We can't be doing this every year," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who added she will advocate in the Senate Agriculture Committee for $500 million in floodwater retention that would include development of temporary wetlands.
The overall mitigation plan also includes a 30-mile floodwater diversion ditch, probably around Fargo.
Sen. Al Franken noted the irony in how record and near-record river crests for three years straight have enabled Moorhead and Fargo to get better at fighting them.
"But it still takes its toll on folks. That why it's so crucial we get the diversion done," he said.
Despite the river drama, the day resembled a normal Saturday. Traffic flowed freely across bridges between the two downtowns and business was lively at a local department store, even though floodwater pulsed not 50 feet from its main door.
"It looks like business as usual," said National Guard Col. Michael Price. "Everyone is very calm and there's no panic, which is a good way to respond to a flood. Everything's buttoned up."