Two cities used to winning flood fights appeared to have another one in hand Saturday as the Red River leveled off short of earlier predictions that might have tested defenses.
The Red's rapid rise from snowmelt this week had all but halted by midday just shy of 39 feet. The National Weather Service declined to say it had crested but pulled back from an earlier prediction of as much as 40 feet, and said an inch of rain in the weekend forecast wasn't expected to change the crest.
Still, officials warned residents to monitor their sandbag dikes and prepare for high water to linger into next week. One north Fargo resident, Kevin Pladson, was in his back yard Saturday pumping water that seeped into a low spot near his sandbag dike. Most of his neighbors were nowhere to be seen.
"I hope we don't get too casual about it because anything can happen at any time," Pladson said. "This is still one of the highest river levels of all time and that still makes me a little nervous."
Edna Holm, who lives in a south Fargo neighborhood the city is trying to remove from the flood plain, said it didn't look like the river would reach their sandbags.
"In a sense, you're relieved. We're just trying to get back into the swing of things," Holm said.
Both Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., with a combined population of nearly 200,000, have permanent and temporary dikes and levees to at least 41 feet. The cities placed more than a million sandbags, and National Guard members were patrolling the defenses.
"Things can change," said Col. Michael Price, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers' district office in St. Paul, Minn.
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, a former public works director and veteran of several flood fights, has said repeatedly he didn't think the Red would break 39 feet. In what might have been a sign of the city's confidence, work had begun to clean streets of clay spilled by trucks as part of temporary levee-building.
The Red River Valley has had three straight years of major flooding.
The record flood of 2009 forced thousands to evacuate, inundated about 100 homes and caused an estimated $100 million in damage. The river crested at 40.84 feet. The river topped out last year at 36.99 feet, the sixth-highest crest on record. Damage last year was minimal.
Fargo and Moorhead have steadily reduced their vulnerability to the Red by buying out homes in flood-prone areas, purchasing miles of quick-install diking systems and making millions of sandbags before they're urgently needed. This winter's heavy snowfall had the cities laying plans for spring flooding far in advance, and construction of sandbag dikes wrapped up Friday in the two cities.
Oxbow, a town of about 300 people 15 miles south of Fargo, was inundated by floodwaters from the north-flowing Red River in 2009. Thanks to about a dozen home buyouts and a $500,000 levee project, only three homes required sandbags this time.
"It was pretty much a non-event," Oxbow resident Kory Bartels said Saturday.
Still, the perennial flood threat is serious. Three people have died in the past week in the Red River Valley, including a farmer who suffered a heart attack while sandbagging and two hunters boating on the flooded Maple River.
More than 600 National Guard members from North Dakota and Minnesota are pulling flood duty on both sides of the Red.
As the Fargo-Moorhead area waited out the Red, water from it and its tributaries was spreading out in rural areas. In Cass County,
Sheriff's Capt. Rick Majerus said residents up to a dozen miles north of Fargo had been calling for more sandbags to guard against high water. But Majerus said no one had been displaced in recent days.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)