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New snow, winds complicate fight against surging Red River


GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A hard, sloppy and urgent fight to restrain the surging Red River of the North became harder, sloppier, colder and more urgent today, as a slow-moving winter storm threw as much as 8 inches of new snow and winds above 30 mph at weary sandbaggers in Fargo-Moorhead and other threatened cities along the North Dakota-Minnesota border.

The storm started Tuesday with freezing rain and continued through the night with heavy and drifting snow, severely complicating the work of heavy equipment operators and truckers hauling sand and clay. No travel was advised throughout the Red River Valley today, and the wintry weather is expected to continue through Thursday.

Fargo officials, faced with the loss of thousands of potential volunteers from other cities because of the nasty weather, appealed this morning for a massive turnout by local residents to finish raising dikes high enough to withstand a crest of 41.5 feet.

Today will be “our big push,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said, promising an all-out effort to bring dikes to 42 feet by Wednesday night, including a dike protecting downtown Fargo. “We need one more good day,” he said.

After assessing the effect of the latest precipitation, the National Weather Service in Grand Forks revised its Red River crest projection for Fargo, saying the river will crest at a record 41 feet on Saturday. Also, that crest is expected to last for two to three days, the weather service said in a noon conference call with reporters.

Fargo and Moorhead barely avoided disaster in the 1997 flood, when the Red River crested just below 40 feet. Days later, dikes in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn., failed to hold a record crest of 54.4 feet, sending floodwaters coursing through 90 percent of those cities and causing close to $2 billion in damage.

Since then, the cities at the fork of the Red and Red Lake rivers — with major help from the federal and state governments — have raised a $417 million permanent flood-protection system that should keep the river at bay to 60 feet. The latest flood projection for Grand Forks from the National Weather Service has the Red River cresting at 48.5 to 52.5 feet. It reached 42 feet Wednesday morning, 14 feet above flood stage.

“Our confidence level remains high,” said Kevin Dean, a spokesman for the city of Grand Forks.

Volunteer buses canceled because of weather
In one indication of the lower anxiety level here, Grand Forks schools were planning to release up to 500 students today for sandbag duty — in Fargo. They were to be joined by hundreds more volunteers from the University of North Dakota and busloads of volunteers organized by the city of Grand Forks. But with the winter storm making travel hazardous, all those volunteer buses were canceled. Fargo also was drawing high-school volunteers from Alexandria, Minn., and other points, but those numbers also are likely to be cut sharply by the weather.

“That will rob them of a lot of energetic volunteers,” Dean said. “We were intending to run those buses until they told us they didn’t need them anymore. But safety has to be our first priority, and we can’t in good conscience send them down there now.”

Fargo-Moorhead does have National Guard troops helping in the flood fight, including about 800 from North Dakota and 300 from Minnesota.

Up and down the table-flat Red River Valley, volunteer crews are battling the river, swollen by heavier than normal fall rains, an early freeze that locked that moisture in, a snowier than normal winter and additional precipitation accompanying the spring thaw.

Breckenridge, Minn., got a bit of a reprieve with a slightly lower than expected crest, through there was a scare Tuesday night when a leak was spotted in a dike. It’s been repaired, local officials reported.

Crookston, Minn., about 22 miles southeast of East Grand Forks, also had a scare on Tuesday when ice jams caused the Red Lake River to rise 4 feet in four hours, spurring officials to sound sirens and announce a voluntary evacuation from low-lying areas.

Considerable new moisture from storm
The winter storm has dropped considerable new moisture in the Red Lake River basin, and that water has to go through Crookston and Grand Forks and points north, including Oslo, Minn.

Grand Forks closed the Point Bridge, one of three links to East Grand Forks, on Tuesday, and the Sorlie Bridge connecting the two downtowns was to be closed this morning. That leaves just the Kennedy Bridge on U.S. Hwy. 2, which would be cut at 52 feet.

Amtrak announced it will detour its Empire Builder passenger trains for at least a week during the flooding, bypassing Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby, N.D.

Despite the cities’ new defenses, the stalled storm is likely to raise concern in Grand Forks-East Grand Forks, where veterans of the 1997 flood remember that it was preceded by a vicious ice storm and blizzard.

“I’ve heard people talking about taking things out of their basements,” said Ken Vein, who was Grand Forks’ city engineer and director of public works in 1997.  “That shows me the stress level is there.”

Now director of plant operations at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks, Vein was one of the city’s key players in the 1997 flood fight and, later, an architect of the new permanent flood-protection system. Earlier this week, he circulated a detailed memo to all Altru employees, explaining the protections now in place.

“I wanted to put people more at ease,” he said. “When you have a permanent flood-protection project of the status and level we do, it should provide a whole different level of confidence” in the city’s ability to manage the 2009 flood.

New information systems, better projections
“We have today information systems that weren’t available in the past, with better flood projections, more information about what’s happening across the region and what the probabilities are.”

The Flood of 1997 has become “historical evidence for us, and allows everyone to be much more accurate,” he said. “We know more about potential impacts. New monitoring equipment and instantaneous access to that information makes a difference.”

One of the lessons of 1997 was that “we are as strong as our weakest link,” Vein said. “And we’ve really removed a lot of weak links” by replacing the old series of independent levee systems with better-engineered and more stable clay-core dikes.

“All those low areas where we pinched the river so tight, now we’ve been able to back off some. The new levee alignments are designed to keep the river flowing and cut the potential for erosion.”

The city has built solid relationships with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, and those agencies “are working closer together, better than they were 12 years ago, from what I can see,” he said.

Things less predictable in Fargo
He concedes that Fargo is in a scarier situation.

“They’re still where we were in 1997, without the engineered flood-protection system,” he said. “Obviously, they’re doing the best with what they’ve got. You still have a certain amount of unpredictability, but I know their city engineer and public works people. It will be exceptionally scary, but they will make it.

“We were 4 to 5 feet off in our projections in 1997, which was huge. When it gets higher, problems expand exponentially. But this year Fargo is clearer about what the crest is going to be. They’ll need a lot of volunteers to be successful. It’ll be close. But I think they’ll handle it.”

Despite all the changes since 1997, a certain level of anxiety among people who experienced that historic flood is understandable, Vein said.

“You can’t go through ’97 and just forget it,” he said. “You’ve got memories, and they’ll always be there, and it takes time for people to build their trust back. I think that’s one of the good things that will come out of this flood.”

Chuck Haga, a Star Tribune staff writer from 1987-2007, is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. He can be reached at chaga [at] minnpost [dot] com.