New Red River crest at 43 feet

FARGO (AP) -- Fargo's rush to prepare for potentially disastrous flooding on the Red River flooding got a major setback late Thursday when the National Weather Service raised its crest estimate to as high as 43 feet.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds/North Dakota National Guard Spc. Christopher M. Rasmussen, of Dickinson,works with civilian volunteers near the El Zagel Shrine and Masonic Temple in north Fargo on Thursday. Rasmussen and other North Dakota National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have been working with residents to fight flooding.

FARGO (AP) -- Fargo's rush to prepare for potentially disastrous flooding on the Red River flooding got a major setback late Thursday when the National Weather Service raised its crest estimate to as high as 43 feet.

The old estimate was 41 feet by Saturday afternoon, and thousands of volunteers had labored throughout the day to raise the dikes around North Dakota's largest city to 43 feet. City and emergency officials had said they were confident the city would make it, but will now have to build higher.

The weather service's new guidance for the Red's crest is between 41 and 42 feet, but the weather service said it could go as high as 43 feet. It said uncertainty in its forecasting models had "increased significantly."

In Moorhead, Minn., where officials earlier had called for voluntary evacuations for several hundred homes on the city's south side, City Manager Michael Redlinger said: "Now everything's up in the air."

Redlinger said portions of the Moorhead dike could not be easily raised to withstand a 42-foot crest.


Hours before the new crest estimate, Fargo officials opened a planning meeting with a prayer.

"We need all the help we can get," Mayor Dennis Walaker said.

The city of 92,000 unveiled a contingency evacuation plan Thursday afternoon, but at least four nursing homes already had begun moving residents by then.

"A few of them said they didn't want to go. I said I'm going where the crowd goes," said 98-year-old Margaret "Dolly" Beaucage, who clasped rosary beads as she waited to leave Elim Care Center.

"I'm a swimmer," she said, smiling, "but not that good a swimmer."

The sandbag-making operation at the Fargodome churned as furiously as ever, sending fresh bags out to an estimated 6,000 volunteers who endured temperatures below 20 degrees in the race to sandbag to 43 feet. Leon Schlafmann, Fargo's emergency management director, said he was confident they would succeed by the end of Thursday.

"I was skeptical as far as volunteers coming out today, but they're like mailmen," Schlafmann said. "They come out rain, sleet or shine."

Schlafmann also said he was confident the dikes will hold even through several days of high water. "We might lose a neighborhood or a few homes, but we won't lose the whole city," he said.


Similar sandbagging was under way in Moorhead, where some homes in a low-lying northern township had already flooded. The city was setting up a shelter at its high school for displaced residents and those who heeded the call for voluntary evacuation.

As the struggle continued in Fargo, the threat in the state capital of Bismarck was receding. A day after explosives were used to attack an ice jam on the Missouri River south of the city of 59,000, the river had fallen by 2½ feet. At least 1,700 people had been evacuated from low-lying areas of town before the river began to fall.

Crews were rescuing stranded residents in rural areas south of Fargo. On Wednesday, 46 people were rescued by airboat from 15 homes, and Cass County Sheriff Paul D. Laney said early Thursday that he had received 11 more evacuation requests from homeowners.

In Fargo, the southern parts of the city, mostly residential areas, were seen as most vulnerable, and the city was building contingency dikes behind the main dike in some areas. The river was a bit over 39 feet Thursday evening. The Red hit 39.57 feet in 1997, and the record is 40.1 feet in 1897.

Dick Bailly, 64, choked up as he looked out over his backyard dike at the river.

"It was demoralizing this morning," Bailly said, his eyes welling. "We got a lot of work to do. People have the will to respond, but you can only fight nature so much, and sometimes nature wins."

On a sandbag line behind another house near the river, 65-year-old Will Wright, a veteran of Fargo floods, helped stack bags as water began to seep through his homemade dike. Like others, he said he was confident the dike would hold -- for a while.

"The big concern I have is the river crest staying three to five days and it testing the integrity of these sandbags," Wright said.


In Moorhead, both entrances to the Crystal Creek development were flooded, leaving Deb and Scott Greelis thinking about how they and their kids -- ages 6, 2 and 6 months -- could get out if things get much worse.

"We are pretty much stuck in here," Deb Greelis said. But she said they could haul the kids in a sled to a nearby highway on higher ground if they need to evacuate.

On the Canadian side of the Red River, in Manitoba, ice-clogged culverts, ice jams and the rising river also threatened residents. At least 40 homes were evacuated in communities north of Winnipeg and several dozen houses were flooded as water spilled onto the flat landscape.

"We're in for probably the worst two weeks that this community has ever seen in its entire existence," said St. Clements Mayor Steve Strang.

The region's emergency services coordinator, Paul Guyader, said water levels in the area were dropping but residents are not letting their guard down: The Red River crest threatening North Dakota isn't expected to arrive in Manitoba for another week.

Fargo's rush to sandbag eliminated a complication caused by the subfreezing weather. Sandbags had gotten frozen earlier in the week, making them difficult to stack tightly together; people were seen slamming bags to the ground to break them up.

Now the sandbags are moving too fast to freeze.

"They are stacking nicely," Fargo spokeswoman Bette Deede said.


The city said that if there is a levy breach and an evacuation is necessary, residents will be notified via sirens, an automated phone recorded message system and emergency broadcasts.

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