Holding their breath in the Valley

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE, MATT MCKINNEY and EMILY JOHNS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2009 - 6:10 AM

A soaked school, a brewing blizzard and ice jams offset the good news of a lower Red River. The flood fight is far from finished.

RED RIVER VALLEY - The Red River dipped below 40 feet for the first time in three days Sunday in Fargo-Moorhead. But a brewing snowstorm, a swamped school and the start of an overwhelming cleanup kept any euphoria in check.

Schools, colleges, many nonessential businesses and area roads remain closed as a new week dawned, with life far from back to normal. The river, at least, was dropping from historic levels.

After a record crest of 40.82 feet early Saturday, the Red had fallen to 39.80 feet by Sunday evening with projections of a steady decline all week.

"Amen. It's a great feeling," said Kyle Norman, a Moorhead resident. "We have said we're going to fight this thing and win, and we did."

Not that their work is close to done. Roger Degerman, who lives in the Horn Park area of Moorhead, dragged water-logged carpeting, furniture and even Christmas ornaments from his soaked basement.

With no trash pickup service expected for days, the huge garbage pile in front of Degerman's home is going nowhere. He worries that the adrenaline-laced volunteer effort might slacken as the cleanup intensifies.

"I think there will be a lot of victories in the cleanup, too," he said, hoping volunteers remain gung-ho.

Another sign that the cleanup has begun: Upstream in Breckenridge, Minn., Wilkin County highway engineer Tom Richels met with FEMA officials to assess more than 300 spots of damaged local roads.

Weather: Good, bad, ugly

Although the area could pick up more than 6 inches of new snow tonight and Tuesday, continued cold with temperatures in the teens are giving flood fighters at least a short-term break.

"The cold keeps the faucets turned off and allows water in the main stem of the Red, hopefully, to work its way up to Canada before the warm weather returns and ice melts back into the basin," said Scott Dummer, the hydrologist in charge of the North Central River Forecast Center.

Wind gusts up to 35 mph tonight could actually hasten evaporation and help matters. But prolonging flood conditions offsets some of the cold's benefit, Dummer said, because drawing out the high water saturates and stresses levees, dikes and flood walls.

That's what happened about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, when water tunneled under a flood wall and swamped two buildings at the Oak Grove Lutheran school in Fargo. The school, nearly wiped out by the 1997 floods, had built a metal barrier on one side of the campus to keep out floodwaters.

Neighbors of the school were awakened by automated telephone calls that a dike had failed.

"It was really hard to get the call last night," said Dawn Robson, who lives less than a block away. Her two children are in the eighth and 10th grades at the school.

Several hours after the dike failed, water continued to flow into a performing arts center and gym, prompting the North Dakota National Guard to attempt an aerial sandbag drop to plug the leak. Helicopter pilots unloaded at least nine 1,000 pound bags of sand onto the broken dike.

"I broke down in church this morning," said Robson, who learned that a charity she supports had opened an office in Fargo. "It was just overwhelming to think that now we're on the receiving end."

Many others were overwhelmed with gratitude for all the volunteer help.

"To have such a tremendous sense of community," said Errol Schoenfish, is one of the great lessons of this flood as he thanked the people who came to build a dike around his Briarwood home south of Fargo.

In Moorhead, the dikes held for another day as residents continued what Mayor Mark Voxland called the "vigil" of watching the dikes and keeping up with leaks.

Some residents worried about Moorhead's construction of a secondary dike on S. 8th Street, but Voxland insisted the city isn't expecting the primary dike to fail.

"But that river is moving very fast right now," he said. "And that live movement against the dike wall causes problems."

Moorhead officials said that they have lost five homes to flooding, although they don't have statistics on how many have been lost in Oakport Township, a low-lying area on the north side of Moorhead where "several" homes were flooded, according to city manager Michael Redlinger.

Fargo also reported five homes "inundated," according to public information officer Dan Mahli.

Voxland said he has no idea how much all the disaster preparation has been costing his city. "The checkbook is open," he said, "and we haven't been able to balance it yet."

When the number becomes available, he said, "you'll know, because I'll be extremely pale."

Minnesota has received a federal emergency declaration, which means that the city will have to foot about 25 percent of the bill, although it could end up being less.

To the north, ice jams

Down the Red near Oslo, Minn., a series of ice jams and a 4-mile-long slab of ice have prompted officials to place boxcars on a railroad bridge in hopes that the extra weight will keep the span in its moorings. Using explosives to break the jam has been ruled out for environmental reasons, Minnesota emergency spokesman Doug Neville said.

The ice slab is 18 miles south of Oslo. Officials fear the backup caused by the jams could lift the railroad bridge into the river about 25 miles north of Grand Forks, N.D.

Staff writers Curt Brown and Kevin Giles contributed to this report.

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