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Relief Turns To Dread As Fargo Braces For Flood

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03/26/2009 05:19 AM
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Relief Turns To Dread As Fargo Braces For Flood
From the Toronto Globe And Mail
1 hour ago-

[link to www.theglobeandmail.com]

Relief Turns To Dread As Fargo Braces For Flood
March 26, 2009

FARGO, N.D. -- Fargoites thought they had licked the Red River yet again.

Sand-bagging sites were silent yesterday morning. Excavators that had spent the last week topping dikes cooled off beneath a five-centimetre blanket of snow. In a morning news conference, the mayor suggested that city dikes, freshly elevated to almost 13 metres, would be enough to hold back the rising water.

Upriver, the Red actually started dropping. Relief slowly replaced dread.

That was until early yesterday afternoon, when the National Weather Service issued a crest prediction that landed in Fargo like a bombshell: 12 metres - higher than this city has ever seen.

"It's uncharted territory," said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, who quickly ordered that all dikes around the city be raised another foot ahead of the crest, expected to arrive on Saturday.

"We kind of took a breather this morning, but it's time to get busy again," said city commissioner Tim Mahoney. "Everyone needs to get involved for the next 48 hours."

Throughout the region, volunteers were pulling back plastic coverings from makeshift dikes and piling on more sandbags.

Streets filled with dump trucks carrying clay and school buses toting volunteers.

A 24-kilometre line of excavators scooped more earth upon dikes along the river and to the south.

During the 1997 'Flood of the Century' that submerged Grand Forks, N.D., and caused mass evacuations downriver in Manitoba, Fargo largely sidestepped major disaster.

But as a result, the city has not invested nearly as much as Grand Forks or Winnipeg in dikes or disaster planning, leaving it somewhat vulnerable.

It has also grown significantly. Dozens of recently built suburban developments fringing the city have never been tested against high water.

Just north of Fargo, in the new residential development of Argusville, the sound of water pumps hovered in the air as some residents filled trailers with personal belongings, preparing to evacuate.

"This whole area was under water in '97," said Kim Mitzel as she carried a small family safe up from her basement.

"So we aren't waiting around to watch it happen again."

All along Highway 29, running between Fargo and the Manitoba border, swollen waters in several smaller rivers licked the bottom of bridge decks, stranded farmhouses and turned wheat fields into oceans.

In a township near the city airport, some residents were abandoning homes.

"It's all up to the Big Guy now," muttered John Keeley as he drove away from his duplex, water lapping at its foundation.

Oakport township chairman Greg Anderson phoned a local AM station in anguish. "I'm just not sure we're gonna get this thing done," he said. "I'm sending my wife and daughter away from town. I suggest others do the same."

Twenty minutes south, Richard Freeman was directing local students in slinging sandbags around his home.

"My family has been here since 1860," said Mr. Freeman, who cut short a Caribbean holiday to save the house. "It's never been this high."

His next-door neighbour, Don Carlson, needed a tractor to usher sand-bagging volunteers through the icy water to his home. "Who's comin' aboard?" he barked, nosing the front bucket toward a group of college students.

"I've lost one building already and it keeps coming up."

The bleat of fan-boats could be heard in the nearby community of Oxbow, where Coast Guard crews pulled upward of 20 people from their homes.

"It's better to save your life than to put yourself through all this," Jane Pearson said.

Ms. Pearson and her husband, Frank, Oxbow's mayor, diked their home but wanted to get out while they still could. Rescue crews aren't planning to run during nighttime.

Sergeant Dwayne Nitschke of the Cass County Sheriff's Office said the speed with which the Red rose at Oxbow took officials and residents by surprise.

"This morning it was just like, 'Wow,' " he said. "This is scary to lots of people."

"It's uncharted territory"

Residents of Fargo fear that even freshly elevated dikes won't be enough to hold back the rising Red River.