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Fargo fights the Red River — yet again

Kevin Moug helps build a sandbag levy Wednesday in south Fargo, N.D.
Kevin Moug helps build a sandbag levy Wednesday in south Fargo, N.D.MICHAEL VOSBURG / The Forum via AP
/ Source: news services

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 yearsFargo'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.

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.

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.