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Fargo area at 'major flood' stage

The rising Red River passes the "major flood" stage, as thousands of volunteers, many students, as well as National Guard troops worked furiously to fortify Fargo and Moorhead.
Image: Young ment moving sandbags in Fargo
Mark Segovia, left, moves sandbags with Michael Vandevoort outside of Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo, N.D., while the Red River raises on Wednesday. The water seen in back is where the school's football field normally is.Jay Pickthorn / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Schoolchildren, parents and hundreds of residents have spent days packing and stacking sandbags to protect their cities against the rising Red River. The National Guard is in place, keeping watch over the water. Dike builders are finishing last-minute work.

Now comes the difficult part for residents of Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., who must wait to find out if all of their efforts are enough to hold back the water.

"It's hard to tell how this one is going to end up," Ed Farley said after he and other volunteers wrapped up construction of a sandbag dike behind his family's home in south Moorhead. "You've always got some concerns."

Volunteers filled their 1 millionth sandbag Wednesday as the river rose above 30 feet — considered major flood stage — on its way to an expected crest of about 38 feet Sunday that could swamp roads and threaten some neighborhoods.

"I've only slept a couple of hours since Monday," said Farley, 57, a farmer from Felton, Minn., who sported head-to-toe mud and a three-day beard. "I figure I probably won't be able to shave for quite a while. It grows fast when you're working."

So far the dikes and sandbags have prevented flooding except for a few parks and low-lying areas with no significant structures.

'Absolutely' optimistic
Officials, meanwhile, exuded confidence.

"Usually in normal floods there's one day of chaos. We have the potential for not having that this year," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said. "Are we optimistic? Absolutely. We're optimistic from the standpoint that we're going to get through this."

It was a more buoyant atmosphere than earlier in the week when the National Weather Service bumped up its crest prediction. Officials expecting a crest in late March and early April were instead given a six-day notice after days of temperatures at or below freezing brought about a speedy snowmelt.

School kids, college students, firefighters, teachers and inmates contributed to the volunteer effort. Eric Birney, one of dozens of orange-clad prisoners who helped fill sandbags at a Fargo warehouse, worked his 10th day Wednesday. Inmates get one day knocked off their sentences for each day of filling sandbags.

Birney, 32, said he's serving a 60-day sentence for possession of drug paraphernalia.

"We might have got a few stares the first couple of days but we're not hurting anybody," he said. "I don't really feel out of place at all. I'm in orange and they're not. I wish I could go out there with them and smoke a cigarette once in a while, but that's OK."

Traffic mess
Fargo itself is beginning to show signs of wear and tear from days of preparations. Dump trucks carrying clay for dikes let some spill out, coating roads and making them a muddy mess. Roads are blocked off to let heavy equipment through.

In the Forest River development of south Fargo, where several homes were flooded a year ago, the job of protecting property was "running like clockwork," resident Richard Thomas said. Thomas' house was saved last year by an AquaDam, a jellybean-shaped tube filled with water. He said at least three other neighbors bought the tubes this year.

"We're getting very practiced at this," Thomas said.

Even the uninitiated pitched in. Katie Salden, 16, traveled about 200 miles to Moorhead with eight members of her church youth group from the Dassel-Cokato area of southwest Minnesota.

"It's kind of scary," Salden said, looking at the rising river. "I think the work we are doing here is really productive. This is a good thing to do."

Moorhead resident Tony St. Michel waited outside his house Wednesday for engineers to sign off on his sandbag dike, then planned to turn his attention to a spread sheet he keeps to monitor the river.

"I can tell you what the flow is, I can tell you what the level is," he said. "I watch it close and I don't get a lot of sleep when it gets up on the sandbags."

Federal officials also were in standby mode, working to complete plans for possible emergency rescues. At least nine airboats and two helicopters were on the way. So was enough cots, blankets, water and food for 20,000 evacuees for five days, should it come to that, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Tito Hernandez said.

"Right now our focus in on life saving and protecting property," Hernandez said. "We feel confident in our plan."

Kids 'saved our community'
The heart of the volunteer corps are the region's youngest citizens. It's a job that elsewhere might be reserved for emergency workers or at least, their parents.

Some children are lugging sandbags that weigh more than they do.

The student push started Tuesday, with new groups of kids arriving by the busloads.

The youths are being excused from class with their parents' permission, joining the hundreds of adults filling and then placing 1 million sandbags.

"They pretty much have saved our community," said Fargo resident David Stark, 62, who worked beside hundreds of student volunteers. He had to take a break after hurting his hand and was in awe of the students' dedication.

The Red is expected to crest on Sunday, and prep work here comes as the National Weather Service issued a report Tuesday stating that much of the Midwest is at "high risk" for spring flooding due to a heavy snowpack and milder temperatures.

Two Red tributaries, the Wild Rice and Sheyenne rivers, were rising rapidly Wednesday, and county officials feared those could flood soon because they can't empty faster into the swollen Red.

Many of the volunteers know that what they're doing may help save a neighbor or friend. Fargo resident Michael Russell, 14, didn't mind missing a day of school to get dirty filling sandbags. He guessed many would end up near his own home or his friends' homes.

"I think I'm helping the city and my friends," he said.

Emilee Stevens normally can't wait more than a few minutes without itching to send a text message to a friend. This week, she didn't think about touching her cell phone as she shoveled, stacked and filled sandbags to help save Fargo.

"Texting would be hard to do sandbagging but it doesn't matter because all my friends are here anyway," said the 14-year-old Stevens.

The students are providing critical manpower when their community needs it most.

Since March 1, volunteers have been bused in to Fargo's "Sandbag Central," an arena-size utility building normally used to house a fleet of 25 garbage trucks, said Terry Ludlum, the city's solid waste utility manager.

There, with the help of machines and volunteers, up to 100,000 sandbags can be filled in a 12-hour shift. Fifty volunteers can fill about 1,000 sandbags an hour.

Ahead of schedule
The volunteers met their goal Wednesday afternoon, three days ahead of schedule and largely because of the help of the young students, Ludlum said. More than 1,000 children and teens have participated in the effort.

"We certainly would not be this far along without the help of these kids," Ludlum said.

Some children are in grade school, or not even old enough to enroll.

Tina Gianakos brought her three sons to help out. Carsen Gianakos, 3, brought his own plastic shovel, and kept pace with brothers Bradley, 8, and Adam, 11.

"We're helping save people's houses so the little kids don't drown," Bradley said.

Nick Soiseth tosses sandbags on Tuesday, March 16, 2010 to help his neighbor's Jim and Fran Brenan build a 40-foot dike outside of their Fargo, N.D. home. (AP Photo/Jay Pickthorn)Jay Pickthorn / FR156812 AP

Carsen was lugging a 35-pound sandbag to a pallet for loading, something that impressed Tom Kempel, a city employee who was overseeing the effort.

"That sandbag is as big as he is, probably bigger," Kempel said. "He feels like he's part of the effort, and he is."

Carsen put down his toy shovel only long enough to take an occasional slide down a sand pile, or to watch heavy machinery that hauled the sandbags away.

"Wow!" he said, pointing to a bucket-loader that chewed into 10-foot-high piles of sand.

'This is hard'
Ciera Watkin, a 17-year-old high school senior, said the sandbagging was hard work. Watkin and her friend, Alysa Lerud, were exhausted after pulling a nearly five-hour shift on Tuesday.

"This is hard and my back hurts from shoveling and everything," Watkin said. "But I'll come back."

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven said the sandbagging effort couldn't have been done without the student volunteers.

"They're moving those bags like crazy," said Hoeven, who filled a few sandbags and patted the backs of many young workers. "They are taking pride in helping their community and we are grateful."