FARGO, N.D. — Businesses reopened and commuter traffic returned Wednesday as the bloated Red River fell below the sandbags and the permanent floodwalls protecting Fargo, feeding optimism the city escaped a disastrous flood.
Under cloudy but mostly dry skies, roads reopened, people returned to work and officials began scaling back their flood response. Traffic was bustling during the morning rush hour, a far cry from last week when the city was virtually shut down while residents remained on alert.
"I had to fight traffic to get to work today," city commissioner Tim Mahoney said.
Less than two inches of snow was forecast, giving residents a break from the storm that blew about 10 inches of blinding snow through the city Tuesday and whipped up blizzard conditions elsewhere across the northern Plains.
City officials have said they would breathe easier when the river falls to 36 or 37 feet or lower, and early Wednesday, it had fallen to 37.37 feet. The river is still far above flood stage, but it's below the top of the floodwalls, which are topped with another 5 feet of sandbags that residents, volunteers and National Guard members had stacked.
"This should give us a sigh of relief," Mayor Dennis Walaker said.
Schools still closed
Officials insist the city isn't safe just yet, and schools will remain closed all week. Forecasters say the river could rise again in coming days when more snow begins to melt. But even future crests aren't expected to approach the levels feared during the past weekend, when the river reached a record 40.82 feet early Saturday.
Freezing weather has limited the amount of snow and ice that would normally melt and flow into the waterway, the National Weather Service said.
The cold also means homeowners have had to keep a constant vigil over pumps to make sure ice does not clog discharge hoses.
"I lived in North Dakota all my life. After a while, you just get tired of it," said Ryan Such, 26, who was driving a pickup truck equipped with a snowplow Tuesday.
Tuesday's snowstorm added to the challenge of monitoring the dikes, producing a messy mix of mud and ice and obscuring visibility for engineers in hard hats, life vests and steel-toe boots who walked along the earthen levees conducting inspections.
Recovery mode in Moorhead
Across the river in Moorhead, Minn., and much of surrounding Clay County, officials were going from flood-emergency to flood-recovery mode Wednesday.
"We're gearing our efforts down and FEMA's here to do its thing," said Detective Jason Hicks with the Clay County Sheriff's Office. "We still have a lot of work to do. Everyone's tapped out."
Officials will help people return to their homes. Moorhead officials expect to lift their last evacuation recommendation, covering the southernmost swath of town, on Thursday or Friday.
And as the high water in the Red River flows north, the Minnesota Army National Guard is beginning to shift personnel with it to other towns facing the flood threat.
Authorities also warned people to stay away from the dangerous river. Late Monday, a man was arrested for driving a snowmobile on a dike, and one brave soul was caught paddling a canoe up the river.
Earlier in the week, a woman was accused of drunken driving after she attempted to drive over a levee in her van and got stuck.
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