N.D., Minn. Prepare For Record Flood

Saturday, March 21st 2009, 9:09 am
By: News 9

(CBS/AP)  The call for people to help fight what could be a record flood brought a steady stream of volunteers to Fargo's "Sandbag Central," including firefighters, a high school baseball team and a married couple of 51 years.

Don Such, 74, sat on a chair next to a sand pile Friday morning while his wife, Alice, 73, filled bags with a shovel inside the huge city building that normally serves as a parking garage for garbage trucks.

"What's better than to sit on a chair and let your wife do the shoveling? You can't beat it," Don said.

"We think this is the thing to do when our city is in trouble. This is home," Alice said. "The way they are predicting, it's scary."

The latest projections from the National Weather Service say the Red River is expected to crest between 37 feet and 40 feet. A 40-foot crest is 22 feet above flood stage and about a half-foot higher than the historic 1997 spring flood.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared a state of emergency Friday in seven counties that border North Dakota: Wilkin, Clay, Marshall, Polk, Norman, Kittson and Traverse counties, and activated the National Guard to help in flood preparations.

In Washington, North Dakota's congressional delegation and governor met with officials of the White House, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Guard and the National Weather Service.

"The wild card is this weather event this weekend and into next week," Sent. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said by phone Friday morning. "The people we met with today assured us this morning that they are prepared to win this fight in every community."

The threat is increasing with a storm moving in from the Pacific by early next week. Pat Zavoral, Fargo city administrator, said the temporary levees are being built to 41 feet or 42 feet.

"Right now, we're looking at a crest of 39½ to 40, but we can't do anymore with those numbers until we see how much rain we get," Zavoral said Friday. "You always plan for the higher numbers."

Across the river in Oakport Township, north of Moorhead, Minn., Marle Myhre was dusting off a flatbed trailer to use for hauling sandbags. He said he had to sandbag around his house one other time, in 1997.

Myhre worries this time because the prediction for the flood crest was moved up two weeks, to sometime between March 28 to April 1.

"Here I thought I had lots of time, and all of a sudden they're talking like it's a week away," he said. "It's always scary."

Work has started on a dike to protect downtown Fargo and more temporary levees are planned around the city. About 1.5 million sandbags will be needed for Fargo and about 800,000 more for Cass County, to be delivered within the next week, said Bruce Grubb, Fargo's enterprise director.

"It's a pretty monumental task," Grubb said. "We think we'll meet the goal."

The city has new equipment to help fill sandbags. Two "sandbag spiders" were set up inside Sandbag Central. The machines, which cost $35,000 apiece, are rated to fill 5,000 sandbags an hour, Grubb said.

"We thought it was a good investment because these 100-year floods seem to be more and more frequent," Grubb said.

Others were filling bags the old-fashioned way, with shovels. That included about 40 members of the Fargo South High School baseball team, whose practice was called off for sandbagging.

"This is our practice now," said Brady Horner, sophomore shortstop and pitcher for the Bruins. "It's good labor. It's a good workout. It also feels great to help out the community. You never know what can happen until it happens to you."

City lawbreakers got a chance to help. Fargo Court Judge Tom Davies offered people who had delinquent fines or outstanding arrest warrants a chance to get them withdrawn if they signed up for sandbag duty.

Starting Saturday, the sandbag site was to run 24 hours.

In Cass County, officials said the sheriff's department has been divided into four emergency response teams. They will be patrolling to help keep dikes in good shape and make sure people are safe.

County officials were busy Friday working on an earthen dike in a subdivision south of Fargo, near the spot where the Wild Rice River flows into the Red. The area was hit hard in 1997 and again in 2006.

"I'm not really worried now that they're building the dike," homeowner Clifford Hall said. "That's a positive thing."

Fargo officials have identified 13 neighborhoods in Fargo along the Red River corridor and five along the city's southwest side that need protection from overland flooding.

(© MMIX, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. )