Red still in flux as cities survive a record crest

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY, EMILY JOHNS and CURT BROWN , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: March 29, 2009 - 12:55 PM

RED RIVER VALLEY - Anxiety levels dropped along with the Red River Saturday as Fargo and Moorhead survived a history-making crest -- at least for now.

A winter storm is lurking over the horizon, however, and could dump a foot of moisture-laden snow on the area Monday. With the swollen Red expected to remain about 40 feet high for another week, no one was ready to claim victory.

"Those that live along the river don't trust the river," said Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland.

But Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker confessed to "a sigh of relief.''

"I think the river has crested, I really do,'' Walaker said.

The two cities were able to close out a frantic week that saw the placement of 3 million sandbags with no major destruction despite the river climbing to an all-time level of 40.82 feet early Saturday. Earlier predictions were more dire, calling for a crest of up to 43 feet.

By the afternoon, the water stood at 40.53 feet -- almost a half-foot higher than the 112-year-old record of 40.1 feet and a foot higher than levels reached in the havoc of 1997.

Coast Guard helicopters rescued three more people Saturday from flood-swept areas, bringing the total of rescues to 85 in the past four days.

The unprecedented height of the Red has bedeviled hydrologists, whose crest predictions have been as fluid as the river all week.

National Weather Service meteorologist Greg Gust said the Fargo-Moorhead river level appears to be stable, but could fluctuate up or down six to 12 inches over the next week. The brighter outlook flowed downstream to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, where experts now say the river should hit 51 feet on Thursday, 9 feet lower than the cities' flood defenses built after the catastrophic 1997 flood.

Attention among the 125,000 residents of Fargo and Moorhead was turning Saturday from how high the river would crest to watching for breaches in the dikes that must hold for days until the river begins to drop.

In Moorhead, some residents in the Horn Park neighborhood weren't slacking off despite the notion of a reprieve. Water was bubbling up in one basement in the neighborhood where three houses were lost earlier this week.

Along River Shore Drive, residents were adding to an enormous sandbag dike they built in recent days. "We can't give up," George Korsmo said. "If we flood, that will let the water flow to our neighbors and we can't do that."

"The reality is that the river is going to be high yet for, oh, six to eight days," Walaker said. "And not until that river drops six or seven feet will I feel totally comfortable."

Drains and sand balls

A major drain that sucks water from a residential area and dumps it into the Red was flowing in reverse Saturday, keeping Fargo leaders edgy. And temporary bunker-style walls of wire and mesh, used by the military in Iraq, have started to leak, prompting crews to fortify them with sandbags.

Massive sand balls lowered by helicopter cables are among the latest weapons in the fight to keep the river in its channel. The sand balls are placed on the water side of the dikes and the current presses them into areas where the levee is thought to be weak.

"We need to keep on the people and continue our patrolling of the dike, repairing leaks and, hopefully, we'll have no real serious blowouts," Walaker said.

With more than 35 miles of emergency dikes protecting Fargo, city engineer Mark Bittner said: "We're in maintenance mode. I don't think there's a piece of riverfront on the Fargo side that isn't protected by a levee."

'In this together'

The historic flooding was the centerpiece of President Obama's weekly radio and video address. "We are all in this together -- as neighbors and fellow citizens," he said. "That is what brought so many to help in North Dakota and Minnesota and other areas affected by this flooding."

Obama and his aides have taken pains to make it clear they will not be caught flat-footed by a natural disaster, as the Bush administration was by Hurricane Katrina.

Obama detailed assistance the valley's residents are already receiving from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He has sent FEMA's acting administrator to the region.

"Even as we face an economic crisis which demands our constant focus, forces of nature can also intervene in ways that create other crises to which we must respond -- and respond urgently," Obama said. "In the face of an incredible challenge, the people of these communities have rallied in support of one another."

Staff writers Bob von Sternberg and Richard Meryhew contributed to this report.

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