Image: Sandbag levy
Michael Vosburg  /  The Forum via AP
Kevin Moug helps build a sandbag levy Wednesday in south Fargo, N.D.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/7/2011 4:24:12 PM ET 2011-04-07T20:24:12

If any city is entitled to confidence that it can handle a major spring flood, it's this one.

With the Red River lapping at Fargo's doorstep for the third straight year, the local newspaper even wondered if overconfidence was becoming a problem when volunteer turnout was light this week as sandbagging began. "Urgency missing in fight," the Forum's top headline fretted.

It was a fleeting moment of concern in Fargo, a city of 105,000 perched on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota that has used guile, gumption and innovation to put itself beyond the worst the Red can offer.

Despite a National Weather Service outlook that calls for a crest range between 39 and 40 feet, potentially one of the top five flood levels on record, Fargo feels ready for the top that may arrive late Sunday.

The city opened its sandbag warehouse on Valentine's Day, its earliest start ever, and 12,600 volunteers filled about 2.5 million bags in three weeks. And though sandbagging started slowly in neighboring Moorhead, Minn., Fargo itself started strong a day later and was on pace to finish on Thursday, ahead of schedule.

7-foot rise in 48 hours
Weather conditions over the past month have been nearly ideal for a gradual thawing of winter ice and snow.

The Red River flow has surged over the last week, rising more than 7 feet in the 48 hours through Wednesday afternoon.

Numerous smaller roads are closed or have sheets of water running over them. Emergency rescues have been conducted but no injuries reported so far.

A critical issue as the waters rise: electricity. Xcel Energy and Cass County Electric have placed sandbags to protect substations from outages that could leave many residents and businesses without sump or drainage pumps.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple and U.S. Sen. John Hoeven pressed for a presidential emergency declaration to make it easier for the state and tribal groups to amass resources and cover costs to combat flooding. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed an emergency declaration for 46 counties hit by spring floods.

"The Red River has already passed flood stage, so it is critical that we have all the necessary federal resources in place to work with local and state responders," Hoeven said.

Some 115 North Dakota National Guard troops already were in the Fargo area on Wednesday and another 100 were expected to arrive Thursday to control traffic and patrol dikes. The Minnesota National Guard also has been activated.

75 homes bought out in 2 years
Fargo's preparation didn't come without years of labor, modern innovation — and tens of millions of dollars in local, state and federal money.

After close calls in 2009 and 2010, the city has aggressively bought out houses in flood-prone areas, making room for miles of permanent levees and reducing its sandbagging burden from about 3.5 million bags in 2009 to 1.7 million this year. Fargo has acquired about 75 homes in the last two years. Fargo also has bought more quick-install flood barriers that are less labor-intensive and cover more ground than sandbagging.

To help pay for the work, residents overwhelmingly passed a half-cent sales tax in 2009 dedicated for flood projects that generated about $10 million in the first year. That followed a 2006 approval of a 1-cent sales tax for a variety of infrastructure projects, including flood work.

PhotoBlog: View, discuss weather photos

Many experts believe buyouts are the cheapest way to fight floods in at-risk areas, where the government buys homes, tears them down and replaces them with green space, parks or wildlife refuges. The buyouts are voluntary, but since the program was introduced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the Midwest floods of 1993, thousands of homeowners and businesses have opted out of the flood plain.

Jim Papacek is one of several Fargo residents who choose to stay. He understands the appeal of selling, but said he can't bring himself to leave the house where his wife and mother-in-law spent their dying days.

"I can understand people being tired, because I'm tired," said Papacek, 66, a nature lover and North Dakota Teacher of the Year in 1984. "I'm still caught up with whether I want to die here, or whether I want to be rid of the problem. The last activity my family had together was watching three raccoons feeding on the patio at three in the morning."

Buyouts in other cities
Several Midwest cities along major rivers have sought short- and long-term solutions. In Hannibal, Mo., 116 homes were bought out after a major flood in 1993. A flood in 2008 washed harmlessly over soccer fields and open spaces. In Arnold, near St. Louis, the 1993 flood along the Meramec River caused an estimated $1.6 million in damage. After 322 homes were bought out, 2008's flood caused just $12,000 in damage.

  1. Partner links
    1. Top stories
    2. Severe alerts
    3. Pollen hot spots
    4. Airport delays
    5. Rush hour traffic

Only one other state — North Carolina — has seen more federal buyouts than Missouri's 5,539 since 1993.

But officials say buyouts aren't the only solution, and cities along the Missouri and Mississippi also are flexing their flood-prevention muscles.

"We can't go out and buy all the homes. There are other protective measures we have to explore," said Pat Zavoral, Fargo's city administrator. Besides sandbags, the city has installed more than 11 miles of portable diking systems that quickly go into place.

Some cities have used tax dollars to make permanent changes. After a 1997 Red River flood that wiped out most of Grand Forks, N.D., the federal government sponsored a $410 million flood protection system of levees and floodwalls. At the same time, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, spent $665 million for a diversion canal to steer the north-flowing Red around the city of 650,000.

Davenport, Iowa, has resisted building a flood wall, choosing to emphasize its connection to the Mississippi River. But the town of 100,000 recently decided to erect an $11.5 million wall to protect its water supply in the face of a 25 percent chance of flooding worse than the record set in 1993. Some residents are flood-proofing their homes, and workers are installing temporary aluminum walls to protect the city's signature minor league baseball stadium.

Despite Fargo's prevention efforts, many nearby small towns remain vulnerable to spilling tributaries and overland flooding.

"We'll get by in the city. The county will be rough," said Paul Laney, the sheriff in Cass County, where Fargo is located.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Explainer: Spring flood forecast

  • NOAA

    "A large swath of the North Central United States is at risk of moderate to major flooding this spring," the National Weather Service said in its latest forecast on Feb. 24. Below are the scenarios by region.

  • North Central U.S.: above average

    Image: Ice backs up on Mississippi River
    Emily M Rasinski  /  St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP
    Ice backs up on the Mississippi River around the Clark Bridge in Alton, Ill., north of St. Louis, on Jan. 24.

    Heavy late summer and autumn precipitation (twice the normal amount since October in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota) have left soils saturated and streams running high before the winter freeze-up. NWS models show this year’s snowpack contains a water content ranked among the highest of the last 60 years.

    The combination put a large portion of the North Central United States at risk of moderate to major flooding this spring, extending from northeastern Montana through western Wisconsin and along the Mississippi River south to St. Louis.

    Information provided by NOAA on February 17, 2011, indicated Fargo, N.D., has a near 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 30 feet. At a stage of 30 feet, portions of downtown Fargo begin flooding and temporary dike construction is necessary. Approximately a 20 percent chance exists of reaching or exceeding the 40.8 foot record set in 2009. Grand Forks, N.D., has about a 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 46 feet. There is approximately a 40 percent chance of Devils Lake, N.D., exceeding 1,455 feet, which could partially inundate portions of the town of Minnewauken, including critical infrastructure and roads across the lake, emergency service routes and possibly a small section of the Amtrak train line.

    There is potential for moderate to major flooding on the Milk River and its tributaries in northeastern Montana. The Milk River near Glasgow Montana has about a 90 percent chance of exceeding the major flood stage of 27 feet. Some minor ice jam flooding is already occurring in Montana; additional flooding resulting from ice jams is likely throughout the late winter and early spring.

    The James River at Huron, S.D., has about a 90 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 15 feet and a 30 percent chance of exceeding the record 21.2 foot level set in 1997. The Big Sioux River at Brookings, S.D., has a greater than 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 12 feet and about a 30 percent chance of exceeding the 14.77-foot record set in 1969.

    The Mississippi River is likely to see major flooding from its headwaters near St. Paul, Minnesota, downstream to St. Louis. St. Paul, MN., has about a 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 17 feet, where secondary flood walls are deployed to protect the St. Paul Airport. Further downstream, the risk of major flooding on the Mississippi (Iowa, Illinois and Missouri borders) will persist into the spring. Much of that region’s snowpack typically accumulates later in the winter. The quantity of spring rains and late-season snow will determine the magnitude of flooding in the Middle Mississippi Valley.

  • Northeast: above average

    Image: Frozen Hudson River
    Mike Groll  /  AP
    The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse is frozen in ice on the Hudson River and in front of the Catskill Mountains in Hudson, N.Y., on Jan. 14.

    There is a small area of above average flood risk in portions of the Northeast, primarily across Southern New England and the Catskills Mountains in N.Y. state. As a result of October and November rain storms, these regions had above normal soil moisture levels prior to the winter freeze, followed by above average snowfall, and river icing in many locations.

    If snowpack and river icing conditions were to persist beyond mid-March, this area could have an elevated risk of spring flooding during the melt period, especially if heavy rains fall during the melt.

  • Southern plains: below average

    Image: Dry area of Texas
    Eric Gay  /  AP
    An irrigation system is used to bring water to a dry field near Hondo, Texas on Dec. 15.

    Fall and winter precipitation over Texas and New Mexico was significantly below average, ranging from 20 to 75 percent of normal from October 2010 to mid-February 2011. Portions of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande basins received as little as 10 percent of normal rainfall. Soil Moisture Analysis by the Climate Prediction Center show drier than normal soils from the surface to as deep as 2 meters.

    This deficit will minimize the amount of water that can be converted to river flows during any rainstorm. Current stream flow conditions as measured by the US Geological Survey range from near average too much below average for stations across this region.

  • Mid-Atlantic, Southeast: below average

    Image: Dry Georgia farm
    David Goldman  /  AP
    Farmer Aries Haygood shows how dry the top layer of soil is on his freshly planted onion farm in Lyons, Ga., on Dec. 10.

    Fall and winter precipitation over the Mid Atlantic and Southeast ranged from 50 to 75 percent of average for this period. Isolated portions of South and North Carolina only received between 25 and 50 percent of normal precipitation. Therefore, soil moisture is well below normal across most of the Southeastern US and the Mid-Atlantic.

    Deficits in the precipitation and soil moisture water contents translate into below average stream flow conditions for much of the region and a below average flood risk for the spring.

  • West: no forecast yet

    Image: Snow in Sierras
    Scott Sady  /  AP
    A utility worker restores service to homes around Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Dec. 20 after a storm that dumped up to 10 feet of snow in places.

    Late February is too early to determine spring flooding potential across the Western U.S. Much of the snowfall which determines spring runoff in the mountain west accumulates during the remainder of the winter and spring.

    Snowpack remains above and much above average in many regions. However, extreme high temperature can lead to elevated melt rates at any time during spring. There is still ample time left in the accumulation period for the spring flood potential to change.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,