Fargo businesses reopen as swollen river subsides

Wednesday, April 1st 2009, 11:56 am
By: News 9

FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- Businesses reopened and commuter traffic returned Wednesday as the bloated Red River fell below the sandbags and the top of the permanent floodwalls protecting Fargo, feeding optimism the city had escaped a disastrous flood.
   Under a cloudy but mostly dry sky, roads reopened, people returned to work and officials began scaling back their flood response. Officials said schools would reopen Monday.
   "Our word for the day is restore and recharge," Mayor Dennis Walaker said.
   Traffic was bustling during the morning rush hour, a far cry from last week when the city was virtually shut down. "I had to fight traffic to get to work today," city commissioner Tim Mahoney said.
   Fargo also began looking ahead to the enormous effort of removing the roughly 3 million sandbags stacked atop the floodwalls. There was no immediate indication when that will begin, but Walaker wants residents to be aggressive when the time comes.
   "We don't want them sitting in their living room watching the National Guard doing this," he said. "We can't do that. People don't understand how many bags are out there."
   Fargo also wants to work with state and federal officials to come up with a long-term flood plan. "It's something that we want to get done as quickly as possible," the mayor said.
   Less than two inches of snow was forecast, giving residents a break from the storm that blew about 10 inches of blinding snow through the city Tuesday and whipped up blizzard conditions elsewhere across the northern Plains.
   City officials had said they would breathe easier when the river fell to 36 or 37 feet or lower, and early Wednesday, it was down to 37.37 feet. The river is still far above flood stage, but it's below the top of the floodwalls, which are topped with 5 feet of sandbags that residents, volunteers and National Guard members had stacked.
   Officials caution that the city isn't safe just yet. Forecasters say the river could rise again when more snow melts. But even future crests aren't expected to approach the levels feared during the past weekend, when the river reached a record 40.82 feet early Saturday.
   Freezing weather has limited the amount of snow and ice that would normally melt and flow into the waterway, the National Weather Service said.
   Tuesday's snowstorm added to the challenge of monitoring the dikes, producing a slippery mix of mud and ice and obscuring visibility for engineers who walked the earthen levees looking for weakness or leaks.
   Across the river in Moorhead, Minn., and much of surrounding Clay County, officials were going from flood-emergency to flood-recovery mode Wednesday.
   "We're gearing our efforts down and FEMA's here to do its thing," said Detective Jason Hicks with the Clay County Sheriff's Office. "We still have a lot of work to do. Everyone's tapped out."
   Moorhead officials lifted another evacuation recommendation, covering the southernmost part of town, on Wednesday. Only a small area on the north side remained under an evacuation recommendation.
   And as the high water in the Red River flows north, the Minnesota Army National Guard is beginning to shift personnel with it to other towns facing the flood threat.