From the NY Times
The threat of major flooding along the North Dakota-Minnesota border is rising as the Red River continues to swell foot by foot. The waters are expected to crest to a record-breaking height of 41 feet by mid-day Saturday, according to the National Weather Service, exceeding the levels reached in the worst flood more than a century ago.
The rising waters have pitched thousands of volunteers — including inmates from a local county jail — in a race against Mother Nature as they haul sandbags and generators into place and prepare for the worst.
The weather service says the waters in Fargo, the most-threatened place along the river, stood at 35.57 feet as of 12:15 p.m. local time Tuesday. The waters are expected to reach a height in Fargo of 41 feet by 1 p.m. Saturday, surpassing the record 40.10 feet set in 1897, but it may not end there.
Mayor Dennis Walaker of Fargo said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon that he had just learned of a new prediction from the weather service that the river could swell to 41.2 feet.
“That would make it the worst flood in Fargo’s history,” he said. He said that the 40-foot level was predicted only a week ago, meaning that the city had less time to prepare than it normally has in previous spring floods.
He said he planned to present residents with an evacuation plan Thursday morning at a news conference. The city has never been evacuated before, he said, even during a major tornado in 1957, and he is not sure whether people will leave. At the least, he expects people to move their valuables up from the first floors of their houses.
Schools in Fargo remain closed. The American Red Cross is planning on opening a shelter soon.
“We’re scrambling now on making sure the sandbag banks are up high enough and our contingencies are in place,” the mayor said.
In April 1997, the last major flood in modern times in the area, the river reached 39.57 feet in Fargo. That year, it reached even higher levels, 54 feet, in Grand Forks, to the north, with floodwaters spreading three miles inland and creating catastrophic conditions that resulted in $3.5 billion worth of damage. Grand Forks has since taken several measures, including building new dikes, to reduce the threat there now.
Mayor Walaker said Fargo had taken various measures too, but they may not be enough.
“No matter what we do, we seem to be behind the eight ball, and we will be until the river crests,” he said. “We’re comfortable at 36 feet and 37 feet, but now 41.2 presents some serious problems. Fifteen miles south of here, the river just crested higher than it did in 1997, so that’s a good indicator of what’s going to happen here.”
Pat Slattery, a spokesman for the weather service, said the chief reason for the repeated flooding of the Red River is that the land is so flat.
As the snows melt in the spring, he said, the river and surrounding land are already saturated with water and cannot absorb anymore. This year, he said, there was up to 300 percent of normal snow pack, and when it began to melt, big rains came too. The first flooding started two or three weeks ago, he said, adding, “It will be a couple weeks more before all the flooding will be over.”
Since last Friday, Fargo city employees, plus local residents, the National Guard and inmates from the Cass County Jail, have been filling sandbags, and as of Wednesday morning had filled 1.5 million sandbags. They expect to fill another 500,000 shortly, to reach a goal of two million bags.
The current weather is not helping. There were big rains in Fargo last night and now it’s snowing, with temperatures in the teens. A city official said the city’s road crews, which were helping with moving sandbags, had to be diverted from that task to plow the roads.
This could get worse on downstream and cause major flooding in South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. It does this quite often but this year is one of the worse they have seen in years.