By James MacPherson and Carson Walker
The bloated Red River briefly breached a dike in Fargo, N.D. early on March 29, pouring water into a school campus and the mayor called it a “wakeup call” for a city that needs to be vigilant for weaknesses in levees that could give way at any time.
Crews managed to largely contain the flooding to the campus of Oak Grove Lutheran, grades 6-12, preventing more widespread damage in nearby areas.
“The campus is basically devastated. They fought the good fight. They lost and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Mayor Dennis Walaker said. “Those things will continue to happen. I guarantee it.”
Oak Grove Lutheran Principal Morgan Forness said city crews, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Guard unsuccessfully tried to contain the rushing water to one building after a permanent flood wall panel at the school buckled around 1:30 a.m.
But the water kept spreading and “we couldn’t contain it. … it’s inundating all of the buildings,” Forness said.
The breach occurred at a spot along the river where the current is especially fast, and the flood was so powerful that it shot water 3 to 4 feet in the air at times. “It just tells you the power of the river,” said city commissioner Tim Mahoney.
By early the next day, the Red River had dropped to 40.15 feet, still more than 22 feet above flood stage. The river may fluctuate up to a foot and remain at dangerous levels for a week, meaning an agonizing several days before people can relax.
“What happened up in Oak Grove this morning was a wakeup call,” the mayor warned at a morning briefing.
“The main event is right now, while we have this higher water,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. “And it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And it ain’t gonna be over until several days from now.”
The city requested more volunteers to resume sandbagging Sunday. Many were expected to turn out after church services in the heavily Lutheran city of more than 90,000 residents. The mayor began his briefing Sunday morning with a prayer, and Gov. John Hoeven encouraged everyone “to say a prayer for everyone in harm’s way.”
Triumph Lutheran Brethren Church moved its Sunday services to a hotel to accommodate people from other churches that canceled worship because of the flood.
“It’ll be just prayer, some old hymns everybody knows, and being together,” said Triumph Lutheran member Tami Crist. “We’ve sandbagged a lot of people’s homes, they’re safe for now. We can sit back and know that we’ve done what we can do. Now God’s going to do what he can do.”
To prevent additional dike breaches, officials planned to begin dropping one-ton sandbags from helicopters Sunday to deflect the violent current of the Red River and keep it from eroding vulnerable sections of the levees.
The aerial effort also includes Air Force Predator drones used to watching water patterns and ice floes from the air and help teams respond on the ground. It’s the first time the drones have been used in a flood-fighting effort.
Water already had forced hundreds of residents in the Fargo area from their homes and submerged basements and yards in an untold number of houses along the river. Emergency crews using boats had to rescue about 150 people from their homes in neighboring communities in Minnesota, where about 20 percent of households in Moorhead had been urged to leave.
“We can’t let our guard down,” said Al Erickson, a 47-year-old banker whose two-story home is across the street from a golf course that is now a giant water hazard.
National Weather Service forecasters say the river is retreating because cold weather – just 17 degrees at 7 a.m. Sunday – has been freezing water that normally would be flowing into the river. By the time that water melts, the biggest flooding threat should have passed, Hudson said.
Volunteers were asked to inspect the levees for problems, joining National Guard inspection teams on the more than 35 miles of levees around Fargo.
“I don’t think there’s an inch of riverfront on the Fargo side that doesn’t have some kind of levee,” said city engineer Mark Bittner. “We encourage neighborhoods to get together and have their own dike patrols and assist us.”
Bruce Boelter walked a roughly mile-long stretch of sandbag dike to eyeball the manmade wall separating his subdivision and the Red River. Neighbor Tony Guck joined him halfway. Both had helped build the dike.
“If we don’t protect this, it’s gonna get us. It’s basically for our own security,” said Guck, 42.
The flooding was brought on by heavier-than-average winter snow, spring rain and a rapid thaw of the snowpack.
A winter storm was predicted to hit North Dakota Monday or Tuesday, although the snow isn’t expected to affect the flooding in Fargo. Still, wind from the storm could cause 2-foot waves that might wash over the top of dikes, said Dave Kellenbenz, a weather service meteorologist.
The main focus now is whether the levees will be able to hold up against the weight of the river water, regardless of its level. Engineers say that anytime water is pressed up against a levee for a considerable period of time, there is a risk of catastrophic flooding.
“The saturation usually becomes the enemy of a levee over time,” Jud Kneuvean, chief of emergency management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Kansas City. “It can cause the embankment to be less stable and slide.”
Word of the river’s possible retreat couldn’t come at a better time for 91-year-old Jim Sundahl, whose Moorhead yard had already been submerged.
“I’m happy about it, I’ll tell you that,” Sundahl said. “But it won’t do us any good for four or five days.”
Associated Press Writer Juliana Barbassa contributed to this report.
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