Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fargo On Brink Of Declaring Flood Victory

The approaching crest of the Red River was being met Sunday with more shrugs than white knuckles, as Fargo residents walked their dogs and went to church instead of sandbagging and escaping to higher ground.

Fargo city officials were on the brink of declaring victory and had already begun moving away from flood fighting mode as the river continued inching upward toward an expected crest later Sunday of 19 feet over the flood stage.

The region was hoping for mostly dry weather to speed the river's fall by week's end. The forecast was cooperating, with only a small chance of rain in sight over the next few days.

That was good news to residents of North Dakota's largest city, who worried that the Red could stay at its crest for several days, straining temporary levees and sandbag dikes.

At the First Assembly of God church in Fargo, where volunteers gathered over the past week to stack sandbags, senior Pastor Bob Ona invited several families whose homes were damaged in last year's floods to pray.

"We want to publicly give thanks to God -- he has helped us, we have been spared," Ona said. "Amen! Hallelujah!"

Fargo residents began cleaning up the debris in low-lying neighborhoods where more than a million sandbags held back waters. Highway crews also were out measuring the clay that had been used to build levees so they could start preparing for how to remove the temporary barriers later this week.

The calm mood was in stark contrast to last year, when floods along the north-flowing Red River sparked a last-minute frenzy of sandbagging that brought life to a halt and forced thousands to evacuate.

This year, residents in Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., were confident as the river completed a rise driven by the spring thaw of a thick snowpack: On Sunday, they walked dogs, went jogging and headed to church.

Fargo resident Terry Ziegelmann spent Sunday morning leisurely reading the paper and eating a bagel at a Moorhead coffee shop less than a block away from the river.

"I don't see the nervousness in people you would normally see when you talk flood," said Ziegelmann, who has lived in the area since 1972. "We were prepared this year. In a day or two, the water will start receding and life will get back to normal."

Another Fargo resident, Philip Schmaltz, 77, noticed far fewer people were trying to get a view of the rising Red from the bridge linking Fargo and Moorhead this year.

"Last year, more things were going wrong that right," he said while walking across the bridge. "This year, more things are going right."

Flooding this year has been limited mostly to areas just along the Red River in Fargo and Moorhead, where 3-feet-high piles of sandbags have prevented the water from reaching homes. Some yards, bike paths and sports fields have flooded -- but without major damage.

North Dakota Air National Guard airmen said they found no major problems during their patrols of temporary dikes in Fargo on Sunday. Staff Sgt. Wayne Baumbach, 23, who is a student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, said he missed part of his spring break because of the flood -- but he didn't mind.

"I would be nice if the community would not have to go through this again but if they need us we'll come again," he said.

In rural areas outside Fargo, more widespread overland flooding from the Red River's smaller tributaries submerged several farm fields and washed out a few roads.

Officials have said they were better prepared for this year's floods than the ones in 2009. Thousands of volunteers filled and placed sandbags and the Army Corps of Engineers built dozens of clay dikes. After the preparations were largely complete, the National Weather Service lowered its crest prediction several times as below-freezing temperatures slowed the melting of snow and skies were free of major rain storms.

Despite feeling confident, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker has cautioned residents and officials against celebrating too early and warned people not to take down sandbag dikes and temporary levees just yet.

AP; National Weather Service; The Weather Channel; UPI.

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