The National Weather Service now says there's a 1-in-3 chance the Red River will reach record levels this spring in Fargo-Moorhead.
The latest probabilistic flood outlook released Thursday shows increased flood risk across the southern half of the Red River Valley, and slightly decreased flood risk for communities to the north, like Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.
"What is driving the increased changes for Wahpeton into Fargo-Moorhead is above-normal precipitation," said meteorologist Greg Gust. "It's primarily that .5 to one inch of liquid precipitation received from the President's day storm."
Gust said weather conditions are likely to be colder and wetter than normal over the next several weeks. If colder conditions persist, flooding could be pushed into mid-April.
"As we move from early April into mid-April, the atmosphere is increasing its holding capacity for water," he said. "So our risk for heavier precipitation events increases."
The river outlook considers normal precipitation from now until mid-April, which Gust said is about 1.5 to 1.8 inches.
NOT A SURPRISE
Many residents of Fargo-Moorhead were expecting the flood risk to increase.
Steve Schaefer, a resident along the Red River in Moorhead, survived the record 2009 flood by piling up about 20,000 sandbags to protect his home.
Since 2009, he's landscaped his back yard to raise the level. This year, he estimates he will need 3,000 to 4,000 sandbags if the river reaches the 2009 level. Many of his neighbors have also improved their flood protection in the past two years.
Schaefer is confident, but still concerned.
"I think the biggest thing is just the unknown of when will it happen and what moisture might come during the thaw that could change the prediction significantly," Schaefer said.
Flooding is also expected to be worse near the headwaters of the Red River around Breckenridge, Minn., and Wahpeton, N.D.
Wilkin County Flood Coordinator Tom Richels is confident the two cities are well protected by new levees and a diversion channel constructed after the devastating 1997 flood.
His concern is for smaller towns that are not protected as rivers and streams break out of their banks and spread for miles across the countryside.
"It's mostly going to be an over land event for us," Richels said. "The rural residents and small cities are going to have more problems perhaps than we've had in the last two floods."
Officials are trying to create flood protection plans for smaller communities, but Richels said it's difficult to plan because over land flooding is unpredictable.
FLOOD PREP WELL UNDERWAY IN FARGO-MOORHEAD
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said his city hopes to have 3 million sandbags ready to deploy by the end of the week.
"Until the river actually starts rising, when we have some better data and so forth, when we find out what March is going to do to us, my viewpoint is not to panic," Walaker said.
Walaker said he always has volunteers and doesn't plan to pay people to make sandbags, unlike Moorhead.
Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said the city started making sandbags on Monday. He calls the process one of the biggest improvements in flood preparation over the last few years.
"Moorhead also is trying out something this year where we've really created a factory to make sandbags," he said. "From the time sand enters the building to when it leaves the building is about 30 seconds."
Voxland said the city is paying the workers at the factory because they were worried about volunteers injuring themselves. The city is aiming to make 1 million sandbags.
(MPR reporter Rupa Shenoy contributed to this report.)