Photos: Fighting floods in Fargo

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  1. Flood water drains from a ditch along Interstate 29 on Sunday, March 21, south of Fargo, N.D. The Red River crested in Fargo today at about 37 feet, nearly four feet short of last year's record crest of nearly 41 feet. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Senior Pastor Bob Ona, top center in suit, joins members of his First Assembly of God congregation in prayer as they gathered around survivors of last year's major Red River flood and those spared from this year's flood during the worship service, March 21, in Fargo, N.D. (Jim Mone / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Traffic comes to a stop on Interstate 29 when a highway crewman, right, checks the road as flood waters increase just north of Fargo, N.D., on March 21. (Craig Lassig / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dave Schwartz, right, and his wife, Terri, use a paddle boat to commute from their home in the Lake Shure subdivision after roads on all four sides of the neighborhood had been covered by floodwater on Saturday, March 20, in Harwood, N.D. The nearby Red River is expected to crest at Fargo on Sunday. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Jon Forknell and his daughter Jenna check on his neighbor's sump pump in south Fargo, N.D. while the Red River presses against the other side of the dike. (Jay Pickthorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Water from the Sheyenne River surrounds mail and newspaper boxes west of Harwood, N.D. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. National Guard troops patrol the perimeter of floodwaters along the Red River on March 19, in Fargo, N.D. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Floodwater begins to overtake a road March 19 near Gardner, N.D. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Dave Canoy works to raise a trailer home to keep it from flooding near Fargo on March 18. The home was raised about one foot and a sandbag levee was constructed around its perimeter. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Water from the rising Red River overtakes a cemetery near Fargo on March 18. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Volunteers build a sandbag levee in Fargo on March 18. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The Red River floods a neighborhood south of Fargo on March 18. (Michael Vosburg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Workers build a levee to hold back the Red River from flooding a residential neighborhood in Fargo on March 18. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. More than 200,000 sandbags have been built up in a Fargo warehouse and are ready for use. The city already has hundreds of thousands of sandbags in place to defend against flooding on the Red River. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Volunteers form an assembly line to pass sandbags while building a dike around a south Moorhead, Minn., home on March 17. Children, parents and hundreds of other residents have spent days packing and stacking sandbags to protect against the rising Red River. (Jay Pickthorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Mac Butler stands in what normally is his backyard in Fargo as the Red River continues to rise on March 17. Butler has lived at the home for more than 25 years and is preparing for his fourth flood. (Jay Pickthorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. After sandbag completion outside of Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo, Sigrid Grinde plays in the mud with classmates, on March 17. (Jay Pickthorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Three-year-old Carsen Gianakos uses his plastic shovel to help in the sandbagging efforts on March 16 in Fargo. (Jay Pickthorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Nick Soiseth tosses sandbags to help neighbors Jim and Fran Brenan build a 40-foot dike outside of their home in Fargo on March 16. The city has learned lessons of last year's record-breaking flood as the Red River nears another crest expected over the next few days. (Jay Pickthorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 3/19/2010 4:07:35 PM ET 2010-03-19T20:07:35

A year ago, weather forecasters changed their estimate late in the game of just how high the Red River would rise, stoking an 11th-hour sandbagging flurry in Fargo that proved unnecessary in the end because the new prediction was wrong.

Now, as the Red swells again toward an expected crest on Sunday, tens of thousands of Fargo residents are weighing the latest National Weather Service forecasts, well aware that predicting what happens on the river is anything but an exact science.

Forecasters analyze a numbing array of factors when making their predictions. Hydrologists use computer models that account for soil moisture, frost depth, snowpack, temperatures, rate of snowmelt and more. Then there are the unknowns like how much rain might spill into the river.

All of these play out over thousands of square miles of Red River Valley so flat that the flooding here can best be described as spilling a glass of water on a pool table. On Friday, the weather service changed its crest level prediction again, lowering it a half-foot to 37.5 feet above the flood stage on Sunday.

"I think they do a wonderful job, provided that they're looking into their crystal ball with all the wisdom they have," said Fargo resident Richard Thomas, 61.

Thomas — for now — is not too worried about flooding, with a home that sits 2 feet above Sunday's projected crest. A year ago, he weathered the crest of nearly 23 feet above flood stage thanks to a special water-filled tube. He's got it on standby if crest predictions go higher this year.

The record high water of 2009 helped forecasters by giving them new data on how the river behaves at those levels, said Greg Gust, warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service in Grand Forks. That makes the weather service more confident this year, he said.

"I wouldn't say we're relaxed," Gust said. "We're more relaxed, or less hectic than other years, and that's simply because the planning process has enabled us to get some more things in place."

Wrong in the past
Recent history in the Red River Valley has been painful for the weather service.

In 1997, forecasters knew there would be record flooding on the Red River in 80 miles north of Fargo in Grand Forks, but they didn't realize just how bad it would be in time for the city to build its dikes high enough. The Red swelled to a record 26 feet above flood stage and the defenses failed, forcing most of the area's 60,000 residents to evacuate.

Video: Midwesterners brace for Red River’s crest

Last year in Fargo, after forecasters belatedly increased their crest prediction to 25 feet above flood stage, the city raced to pile its sandbags higher. The estimate proved to be about 2 feet too high, though the dikes held when the Red topped off.

Meteorologists and disaster officials sometimes refer to major floods as "500-year" or "100-year" floods, but many argue that the terms should be dropped because they're often misunderstood to mean such a flood will occur only once in that time period.

Fargo's second big flood fight in as many years can be largely laid at the feet of El Nino, the phenomenon that has affected weather nationwide. In the Upper Midwest, an unusually early warm-up meant rapid snowmelt. And with the ground still frozen, that melted snow moved quickly into streams and rivers.

Donald Schwert, a geology professor and flood expert at North Dakota State University in Fargo, pointed out that the Red River Valley is unlike most others — it's not even much of a valley — so traditional forecasting methods don't work very well on it.

When a typical river floods, he explained, it spills out onto its flood plain and is then contained by its valley walls. But when the Red overflows, it spills onto an ancient lake bed and a vast, shallow flood develops.

"Here we have this immense surface that's one of the flattest places on earth and doesn't easily fit into existing hydrological models," Schwert said. "Special models have to be developed and tested, which makes this a very difficult terrain to anticipate how floods will develop and operate."

Mathematical models
Gust said forecasters have been getting a better handle since 1997 on how to predict flooding. That disaster ripped out many river gauges, Gust said. Much of the replacement equipment is stronger and less vulnerable, and the data often flows via satellite instead of fragile phone lines. Forecasters also have developed better ways of determining the mathematical probabilities of flooding, Gust said.

Knowing those odds, helps people make better dollars-and-cents decisions. Gust pointed to Fargo's decision a few weeks ago to try to stockpile 1 million filled sandbags ahead of time, which gave the city a head start when a stretch of unusually warm weather accelerated flooding projections.

Thanks to increases in computing power, Gust said, forecasters can run alternative scenarios fairly quickly, something they couldn't do in 1997.

"Every year there's a different wrinkle that shows up on the terrain," he said.

Flood fighters have come to learn that they still need to accept some uncertainty. Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker — who last year criticized the weather service for putting his residents on an emotional roller coaster of river forecasts — said as much this week when asked if the weather would be a wild card.

"It's not an exact science," Walaker said. "We understand the variables."

In Thomas' neighborhood, former rodeo cowboy Bryan "Snake" Johnson was helping his parents prepare their home, which had a swamped basement last year. Johnson calls the predictions "just a guessing game" with serious consequences. Forecasters, he believes, should be held accountable for river forecasts that go terribly awry.

Still, "I kinda give them a break," he said. "It's the nature of the beast of what happens around here. You can't predict what happens."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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