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Fargo scrambles as river forecast rises up to 40 feet

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Stunned metro leaders scrambled resources and issued pleas for volunteers Thursday to prepare for a Red River crest that forecasters say could exceed the flood level of 1997.

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There was some confusion over the forecast, with Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker saying the National Weather Service told him Wednesday there was an even chance the river will reach 39.5 to 40 feet in Fargo as early as March 28.

That's about two weeks earlier and 1 to 1½ feet higher than last week's 50-50 crest prediction, Walaker said, calling the shorter preparation time a "huge, huge, huge issue."

"We have to take this as a serious threat," he told local officials and media packed into a room at City Hall Thursday morning.

But the weather service issued a preliminary flood forecast Thursday predicting a Red River crest of 37 to 40 feet between March 28 and April 1.

"It's important to understand, this number will change," said Mark Ewens, data manager at the weather service office in Grand Forks, N.D.

A 40-foot crest would be about half a foot higher than the 1997 flood crest of 39.57 feet.

The forecast accounts for potential rainfall from a Pacific storm system on the same track as a March 9-10 snowstorm that dropped more than 10 inches on the Fargo-Moorhead area.

The storm, expected to start Sunday night and continue through Tuesday, could dump 0.75 to 1.5 inches of rain on large areas, with localized areas of up to 2 to 3 inches possible, said NWS senior meteorologist Dave Kellenbenz.

The rainfall will speed the melting process that will already be in full swing this weekend, with temperatures forecast in the low 50s, he said.

"Next week's storm is going to impact these (river) stages quite a bit," he said.

Fargo gears up

Fargo closed Second Street North in front of City Hall and south of Main Avenue and Oak Street by Mickelson Field on Thursday to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to begin building temporary levees.

Sandbag filling operations will begin today and go around the clock starting Saturday. Sandbagging will start in neighborhoods Monday, city officials said.

Walaker said the city's flood protection profile is much better than in the past, but "there are some people who are very, very concerned."

After 1997, the city banned walkout basements and bought and removed about 100 homes in flood-prone areas, he said. Still, land in extreme south Fargo remains without permanent flood protection because of funding delays and opposition to the Southside Flood Protection Project, he said.

"To say that we're inadequate, I think that's a misnomer," he said. "We've done what we can."

Fargo suspended residential garbage pickup until March 30 because of the flood fighting efforts.

Moorhead efforts

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland urged property owners to start sandbagging immediately.

With rain possible early next week, Voxland said it would be a mistake to wait.

"Now is the time to get started," he said, adding that the weather this weekend is expected to be perfect for dike building.

Voxland declared a short-term state of emergency Thursday and said the city council will makes a similar declaration Monday that will be in effect for several weeks.

Moorhead officials estimated 600-700 residences could be threatened if the Red River reaches 39-40 feet.

The city has decided to provide residents with sand and bags at designated locations, but it will not transport material to specific homes.

"It becomes a logistical nightmare," said Chad Martin, Moorhead's operations manager.

Officials said ditches and ponds in Moorhead have largely been cleared of snow, helping protect the city from overland flooding.

Minor street flooding is possible in coming days, but officials said residents should not be too concerned if they see water standing in roadways.

Residents are being asked to make sure sump pump hoses are draining into yards and not into the city's sanitary sewer system.

The same goes for residents of Oakport Township, said Greg Anderson, township board chairman.

Anderson said his home came close to flooding in 1997, so this time around he's not taking any chances.

"Personally, I'm preparing for 42 feet," said Anderson.

West Fargo/Cass County

Thursday's updated crest projections raises concerns about flooding in rural Cass County, said Dave Rogness, emergency manager for the county.

"At our previous numbers, we were kind of on the bubble," he said. The new estimates "take it to the critical level."

Rogness said county officials are worried about the rural subdivisions south of Fargo between the Red River and University Drive and the area where the Sheyenne Diversion ends north of West Fargo.

At the height of the flood, roads to those subdivisions just south of Fargo city limits will likely be forced to close, Rogness said. Some would be submerged in as much as six feet of floodwater if the 40-foot crest happens, he said.

A series of earthen levees will be built in the area, he said. Most will track along roads, through some will extend into private land. Cass County Engineer Keith Berndt said negotiations with three landowners for the rights to build temporary levees on their land were still pending Thursday afternoon.

In West Fargo, officials expect the city to stay dry because of the diversion of the Sheyenne River, said Barry Johnson, public works director. But city commissioners still met Thursday to approve an emergency declaration that allows the city to tap federal disaster money if needed.

"We're just being pro-active," Johnson said.

Clay County roads close

Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said Thursday the change in the flood forecast means people who plan to build sandbag dikes should start building them sooner and higher.

He said the Buffalo River is very high and is likely to become an increasing problem in coming days.

Overland flooding is closing roads across the county, he said.

Highway 52 was closed Thursday morning between County Road 10 and Barnesville.

Bergquist said snow and ice in ditches is causing much of the problem because snowmelt from fields cannot drain.

How to help/who to call

- To volunteer for Fargo sandbagging operations, call FirstLink at (701) 476-4000.

- Fargo residents seeking neighborhood flood information should call (701) 241-1545.

- For Cass County flood information, call (701) 298-2370.

- Moorhead residents with questions can call (218) 299-5390. Those seeking volunteers to help should call First Link.

- Oakport Township residents can call their township supervisors, or Greg Anderson, the township board chairman, at (701) 238-6548.

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