Image: Flooded basement
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
Ed Samuelson walks through knee high water as he salvages a wet bear rug from floodwaters in in a friend's basement Tuesday in Fargo, N.D. With the Red River receding, those who had to flee are returning to find a mess.
updated 4/1/2009 11:00:35 AM ET 2009-04-01T15:00:35

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.

More on Fargo

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Photos: Fighting floodwaters in Fargo

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  1. This satellite image released Tuesday shows the flooded Red River on Sunday as it divides North Dakota and Minnesota in the Fargo area. (Digitalglobe via Getty Images / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Snow falls in downtown Fargo on Monday. The city's heavy equipment was pulled away from the ongoing levee construction to deal with the snowstorm. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The driver of this truck braved floodwaters and ice slabs on Monday driving along Interstate 29, north of Grand Forks, N.D. (Eric Hylden / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. National Guard soldiers prepare to launch large sheets of plastic with sandbag weights over the side of an earthen dike on the southside of Fargo Monday. Engineers hoped the plastic barrier will help prevent erosion as snow followed by high winds and blizzard conditions entered the region. (Allen Fredrickson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Red River had swamped these homes Monday in Moorhead, Minn. (Elaine Thompson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. An ice formation on a tree indicates the height of floodwaters, after the Red River receded in Oxbow, south of Fargo, on Sunday. (Eric Miller / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. This sign is among the ways residents of Fargo, N.D., are thanking the thousands of volunteer sandbaggers. (Daniel Barry / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A bitter cold did not stop folks in Fargo from attending a prayer service Sunday. (Daniel Barry / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Randy Richards uses a broom handle Sunday to measure the depth of the receding Red River floodwater that surrounds his brother's home in Fargo. (Eric Miller / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The flood threat hadn't killed all signs of humor -- this one was spotted in the front window of a home in rural Fargo Sunday. (Carson Walker / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Volunteers work to fill sandbags Sunday in Fargo. The effort has been going on for more than a week in the city and other areas along the Red River. (Daniel Barry / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Carl Sinner shows off his "catch," a walleye pillow, as he and friends Dennis McIntyre, left, and Dick Roswick take a break Sunday from days of fighting Red River floodwaters to save Roswick's home in Fargo. (Eric Miller / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. People work to funnel floodwater out of a building at the Oak Grove Lutheran school on Sunday in Fargo. The bloated Red River briefly breached a dike early Sunday, pouring water into the school campus. Crews managed to largely contain the flooding, preventing more widespread damage in nearby areas. (Elaine Thompson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Bob Smith, left, and Jared Bakko head back to their cars after Smith checked on his house and Bakko took supplies to his grandmother as the Red River flood waters began to recede just south of Moorhead, Minn., on Saturday. (Craig Lassig / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. David Marshall lowers a current meter into the swollen Red River from a closed bridge between Moorhead, Minn.,and Fargo, N.D., on Saturday. (Jim Mone / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A road is covered by floodwaters on Saturday. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Homes are surrounded by floating ice and floodwater as the Red River continues to rise on Saturday in Fargo, N.D. The normal banks of the river are defined by the twisting tree line and the ice toward the bottom of the picture is floodwater. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Farrell Turner carries Nathaniel Jones while Amanda Monson, Ashley Jones and Cody Turner unload some belongings as they evacuate their home because of the Red River flood in Moorhead, Minn., on Friday. (Craig Lassig / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Lowell Bottrell paddles his canoe through icy floodwater up to a neighbor's home as the Red River continues to rise on Friday. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Evelyn Radke is comforted by Anna Charles, right and Ves Marinov as she is evacuated with the rest of the residents at the Elim Rehab & Care Center on Thursday in Fargo. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Randy Haas steps off a Coast Guard air boat after being rescued from his flooded home Thursday in Oxbow, N.D. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Vic Klosterman walks through flooding from the Red River in front of his home south of Fargo on Thursday. (Eric Miller / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Volunteers ride in the scoop of a front end loading tractor after sandbagging around a home threatened by flood waters from the Red River in Fargo on Thrusday. (Eric Miller / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Volunteers hitch a ride in a dump truck to help residents sandbag their homes as water from the Red River continues to rise on Wednesday. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Emergency workers use an air boat to rescue Destiny Dolan, 15, front left, and friend Kayla Weston, 15, on Wednesday. Dolan said the experience of being trapped was terrifying. (Nate Jenkins / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Michael Stensgard uses one of his family's boats to get back to their home from the Red River on Wednesday, near Fargo. (Richard Tsong-taatarii / The Star Tribune) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. One of Doug Stensguard's dogs, Annie, looks out over what used to be a 5-acre yard and an outbuilding that was flooded by the rising Red River on Tuesday in Fargo. Stensguard built an earthen and sandbag dike around his home in the hope of holding back the rising floodwater from the Red River. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Zach Boor, 12, whose face is splattered with mud, passes a sandbag down the line as he joined college students to help build a dike along the north side of Rose Coulee on Monday in Fargo. Boor was excused from classes at Discovery Middle School so he could join thousands of other volunteers to build dikes to protect the city from the flooding Red River. (Dave Wallis / The Forum via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. North Dakota Army National Guard troops haul away empty palettes from River Shore Drive on Monday. (Dave Arntson / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Volunteers help place sandbags outside the home of Jeremy Kuipers in Moorhead, Minn., on Tuesday. (Richard Tsong-taatarii / The Minneapolis Star Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. As the Red River rises in the background, Gloria Brown hauls a wagon load of sandbags to pile around her neighbor's home Tuesday in Fargo. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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