Police escorted convoys of flatbed trucks into neighborhoods along Fargo's Red River on Monday as residents began preparing to keep the looming flood waters out of their homes.
The cities of Fargo in eastern North Dakota and neighboring Moorehead, Minn. were in flood fighting mode after the National Weather Service bumped up its flood crest forecast because of warm weather and rain. The Red River is expected to crest on Saturday about 20 feet above the flood stage, meaning the rising waters flowing over the river's banks could threaten nearby houses, roads and parks.
Last year, about 100 homes in the area were damaged and thousands of people were evacuated after the Red River rose above the flood stage for a record 61 days and crested twice. Officials say they are better prepared this year for flooding thanks to earlier sandbagging efforts and the building of stronger levees across the region.
Miles of clay levees, more than 1 million sandbags and portable wall systems will be used to help protect an area of about 200,000 people in Cass County, N.D., and Clay County, Minn. Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said a handful of residents outside the city left their houses mainly because they don't want to be stranded by overland flooding.
"I don't know if this is a surprise, but the emphasis has changed dramatically," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said after a briefing with city and county officials on Monday. "Everybody has to understand that this is for real."
Fargo has mapped out a plan to deliver sandbags over the next three days, starting with the most vulnerable neighborhoods. Sandbagging is expected to kick into high gear on Wednesday, when high school and junior high students will be excused from school to chip in with the flood preparation efforts. The city also asked for 200 National Guard members for help.
"We have 27,000 pieces of property in the city of Fargo alone and they are all vulnerable," Walaker said. "We really need volunteers. We really need protection."
Walaker said he's confident the city could handle a crest of 38 feet this year, which is expected to happen on Saturday. Last year, the river crested on March 28 at a record 40.84 feet, nearly 23 feet above flood stage.
"Hopefully on Saturday it's time for the champagne and lighting the cigars," he said. "But it's not the time today."
Unprecedented mild temperatures that melted snow and persistent rainfall so far this year led to an accelerated flood crest forecast, weather officials said. The crest had been expected later this month or early April.
Dr. Andrew McLean, medical director of North Dakota's Department of Human Services, said the prospect of back-to-back annual flooding has been difficult for some residents.
"People are still tired from last year," McLean said. "The good news right now is we have a shortened time frame. That's actually a good thing. People do step up."
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