Upper Midwest flooding

Red River becomes the Red Sea

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2011 - 11:00 AM

The Red has crested and will stay there a while, but months of preparation in the cities of Fargo and Moorhead were paying off.

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FARGO, N.D. - The Red River Valley reverted to a shallow sea Sunday as tributaries of the Red River, stalled by that river's massive flow through the Fargo-Moorhead area, spread across the landscape, flooding homesteads and closing highways.

An estimated 60 roads in North Dakota's Cass County were closed as floodwaters rushed across them, and a roughly 8-mile stretch of Interstate 29 north of Fargo was closed in both directions late Sunday afternoon. Where the interstate was still open, whitecaps rolled up to the edges of the pavement as strong northwest winds roiled the floodwaters.

Cass County administrator Bonnie Johnson described the overland flooding as "unprecedented." Roads could remain closed for more than a week.

In rural Argusville, north of Fargo, the Coast Guard, sheriff's offices and National Guard had to pluck stranded farm residents from the watery countryside.

On Sunday, rescuers used airboats to help one man who sat stranded atop a tractor on a county road. In a separate rescue, airboats fetched five adults and two dogs after a dike broke at an Argusville farm.

On Saturday, Obert Tenold, 87, was minding his sump pump in the basement of the farmhouse where he's lived for 35 years when airboats showed up at his door. A concerned friend had called.

A dike of more than 3,000 sandbags surrounding Tenold's house had sprung a small leak. Rescuers helped him get a pump going inside the dike, fixed the leak and suggested he leave with them. He did, albeit a bit reluctantly. He'd been through seven floods there before.

"Even right now I think I could have sweated that out," he said Sunday by phone from his son's warm, dry home in Fargo. "They said that ... it was dangerous to be there. I didn't feel that way, but here I am in town."

He took a few minutes to pick up some essentials and went with the rescuers. Not sure how long he'll be out of his house, Tenold said he might be celebrating his 88th birthday this week in town, too.

"I'm not going to ever go through this again," he said. "We're going to get rid of the place."

Said son Duane Tenold: "He's been saying that since the flood of '97."

Wet in West Fargo

The overland flooding clashed with the situation in Fargo-Moorhead, where months of preparation allowed the cities to hold off the Red's fourth-highest crest without any serious complications.

The river crested there Saturday, and although just under a half inch of rain fell by midafternoon Sunday, National Weather Service forecaster Jim Scarlett said he did not expect the river to rise. But the rain was likely to extend the siege of high water. The river, which crested Saturday at 38.75 feet, probably will not drop below 36 feet by next Sunday.

Overland flooding also overwhelmed an outlying residential area near West Fargo.

"I wasn't anticipating this kind of flood," said Larry Francis, whose spacious yard was covered in knee-deep water from the Sheyenne and Maple rivers and, Francis argued, the result of a permanent flood diversion project around West Fargo to channel floodwaters.

Francis, who has lived in his home since 1987, said floodwaters filled his yard in four hours Thursday. On Sunday, the water still appeared to be rising, and was flowing across County Hwy. 17 through his neighborhood.

Francis has raised his garage and sidewalk around his house, and despite the recent high water, had lost only some basement carpeting. He'd tied one of his boats to a tree with a sign reading, "West Fargo Diversion at Work."

South of Fargo, nearly 200 people found their way to morning mass at St. Benedict's church at Wild Rice, a historic white country church less than 1 mile from the Wild Rice River and nearly surrounded by water.

The church was forced to close during high water each of the last two years. But since last year's flood, the church bought some surrounding property and church members -- many of them farmers with tractors -- added to dikes around the church.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, the levies appear to be holding in Moorhead, but residents were concerned that increasingly high winds could create waves and add pressure to dikes, said Doug Neville of the state Department of Public Safety.

Bryan Green, the emergency coordinator in Clay County, said there are more than 65 roads closed in the area totaling more than 100 miles.

Staff writers Pam Louwagie, Kelly Smith and Heron Marquez contributed to this report. Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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