“We do not want to give up yet. We want to go down swinging if we go down,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Thursday, just hours after the disheartening news that forecasters had – yet again – increased the projected crest of the north-flowing Red River.
Just after 2 a.m. Friday, residents in a neighborhood south of downtown were roused from sleep and forced to evacuate after authorities found a significant leak in a dike. Police Capt. Tod Dahle said that while water wasn’t rushing to overtake the neighborhood, the integrity of the dike was in question and there was an immediate threat to about 150 homes.
The river had risen to 40.18 feet early Friday, breaking a 112-year-old record on its way to a projected crest of up to 43 feet. The previous high water mark was 40.10 feet, set April 7, 1897.
Residents in this city of 92,000 have been scrambling in subfreezing temperatures to pile sandbags along the river and spent much of Thursday preparing for a crest of 41 feet, only to have forecasters add up to 2 feet to their estimate.
The first estimate sparked urgency among thousands of volunteers in Fargo. The second shook their spirits.
“I’ve lived here 40 years and over a 30-minute span I’ve reached a point where I’m preparing to evacuate and expect never to sleep in my house again,” said Tim Corwin, 55, whose south Fargo home was sheltered by sandbags to 43 feet.
Dick Bailly, 64, choked up as he looked out over his backyard dike.
“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.”
But 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.
“I was skeptical as far as volunteers coming out today, but they’re like mailmen,” said Leon Schlafmann, Fargo’s emergency management director. “They come out rain, sleet or shine.”
Gov. John Hoeven urged residents not to let down. “We know they’re tired, but we need to hang in there and continue the work,” he said.
Hoeven called for 500 more National Guard members to join 900 already part of the effort.
Officials ordered the evacuation of one Fargo neighborhood and a nursing home late Thursday after authorities found cracks in an earthen levee. Residents were not in immediate danger, and water wasn’t flowing over the levee, Walaker said.
Still, officers went door to door to the roughly 40 homes in the River Vili neighborhood and were evacuating Riverview Estates nursing home. Authorities also asked the 1,000 residents who live between the main dikes and the backup dikes in various parts of the city to leave within 24 hours. That evacuation could become mandatory.
The city was also blocking off its main roadways Friday, so sandbag trucks could get to where they were needed most.
Authorities across the river in Moorhead, Minn., also stepped up evacuations Thursday. They recommended that residents leave the southwest corner of the city and a low-lying township to the north.
At least four nursing homes in Fargo also moved residents.
“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.”
Fargo’s largest hospital evacuated patients Thursday. About 180 people were being transferred by air, ambulances and buses to hospitals in Bismarck, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, S.D., and elsewhere, a MeritCare Hospital spokesman said.
The National Weather Service said late Thursday afternoon that the Red was expected to crest between 41 and 42 feet by Saturday, but could reach 43 feet. It said water levels could remain high for up to a week – a lengthy test of on-the-fly flood control. The updated forecast came after thousands of volunteers had labored 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.
“Record flows upstream of Fargo have produced unprecedented conditions” on the river, which “is expected to behave in ways never previously observed,” the weather service said.
As in Fargo, sandbagging was under way in Moorhead, a city of about 35,000 where some homes in a low-lying northern township had already flooded. The city was setting up a shelter for displaced residents and those who heeded the call for voluntary evacuation.
Meanwhile, the threat in the state capital of Bismarck was receding, a day after explosives were used to break up an ice jam on the Missouri River.
In rural areas south of Fargo, crews were rescuing stranded residents. Pat Connor of the Cass County sheriff’s department said 70 people had been rescued by Thursday evening, and he expected that number to grow.
In Fargo, residential areas in the southern parts of the city were seen as most vulnerable, and the city was building contingency dikes behind the main dike in some areas. The river was nearing 39.85 feet Thursday night. The Red hit 39.57 feet in 1997, and the record is 40.1 feet in 1897.
The federal government announced a disaster declaration Thursday for seven Minnesota counties. The entire state of North Dakota had received a disaster designation earlier in the week.
On the Canadian side of the northern-flowing Red River, ice-clogged culverts, ice jams and the rising river threatened Manitoba residents. Several homes were evacuated north of Winnipeg and several dozen houses were flooded.
“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 Red River crest threatening North Dakota isn’t expected to arrive in Manitoba for another week.
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