By DAVE KOLPACK
FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- The landscape has changed dramatically since the record flooding of the Red River: Hundreds of once-vulnerable homes are now gone and miles of concrete floodwalls and clay levees add new protections as communities on the river's banks brace for it to overflow yet again.
Those changes over the past several years have built a buffer of green space that gives residents on the Minnesota-North Dakota border confidence as they prepare for a fourth major flood in five years -- the worst in 2009.
Having gained plenty of unwanted practice in dealing with floodwaters, Fargo kicked off its annual rite of spring Wednesday when hundreds of junior high school students got out of school to help fill sandbags.
Few residents of Fargo or Moorhead, Minn., just across the river, are complaining that their clear view of the waterway has since been replaced by a wall. For a metropolitan area just four years removed from a record flood that forced thousands to evacuate -- some by hovercraft or helicopter -- such sacrifices now seem a small price to pay for safety.
"A flood wall is reassurance," said Michael Redlinger, Moorhead city administrator. "It's peace of mind. A lot of mental security."
The city and county governments have allocated more than $200 million, mostly in federal funds, to build 25 miles of permanent levees and buy out about 500 homes. Fargo City Commissioner Brad Wimmer said the area has been able to cut its flood fighting efforts in half since 2009, including the number of structures that will need sandbagging.
"We were just learning at that time," Wimmer said Wednesday from Sandbag Central, a city-owned storage building that usually houses garbage trucks. "From there to now, it's night and day. We're way better off."
The National Weather Service is predicting a 50 percent chance of the river reaching 38 feet in Fargo, which is 20 feet above the point of spilling over its banks. Officials estimate 117 homes would need to be sandbagged at that level, which would eclipse the fifth-highest flood on record for the area.
The record flood of 2009 topped out at nearly 41 feet.
The floodwalls, which the city has tried to jazz up with an ornate brick pattern, are a hit with residents, Wimmer said. Darren Dunlop, who has lived near the river in north Fargo for 20 years, calls the massive floodwall that protects his north side neighborhood a beautiful thing, both for their appearance and his peace of mind.
"We're finding that the walls have been an attraction," Wimmer said. "As time goes on, they will become part of the community. They're not a detriment at all."
The changes have come with heartache. Some neighborhoods that were thriving in 2009 now only have a smattering of homes, surrounded by empty lots where houses were either destroyed or bought out. In at least one case, an entire subdivision is gone. Heritage Hills, which once had 40 homes along the confluence of the Red and Wild Rice rivers south of Fargo, no longer exists.
Kolbjorn and Solvi Rommesmo were the last to leave Heritage Hills, turning out the lights on the neighborhood in 2010 after taking a buyout.
"I drove through there last fall. Everything was gone of course," Kolbjorn Rommesmo said. "We are missing the place out there. The lots were big, there were a lot of trees and it was quiet. But we needed a boat to get out of there."
Rommesmo has moved to a higher part of town where he feels more protected from flooding.
"I think we should be all right," he said. "The city has done a lot of work on flood protection, but I guess you never know."
Fargo has spent about $107 million on flood protection projects since 1997 and Moorhead has committed $88 million since 2009. Cass County, on the North Dakota side, has spent $20 million. Most of it is federal money, though Fargo voters have on two occasions approved sales tax measures to go toward flood protection.
Fargo has been budgeting $100,000 a year to help residents raise their level of flood protection. The program covers all engineering and construction expenses. Applications are approved on a first-come, first-serve basis.
If the 38-foot flood prediction comes close, Moorhead will have only seven homes that need sandbagging, most of them in the central part of the city. That would take 33,000 sandbags. As a comparison, a similar flood before the mitigation efforts would have threatened about 140 homes and required 670,000 sandbags.
Moorhead city engineer Bob Zimmerman said the city didn't have the money to offer the lone residents in harm's way a buyout until a year ago, after a mild winter led to a "non-flood" season.
"The sense of urgency from them probably was very different than it was for some of the earlier buyouts," Zimmerman said. "Maybe this spring might have changed some minds. We want to go back and visit with those folks."
The 10-day campaign to fill 1 million bags for Fargo and Cass County started Wednesday with students filling 15,000 bags in the first hour, with the help of three machines that can pour sand into 12 funnels at a time. The city and county plan to have nearly 2 million bags ready to go by April 13.
"This is probably as neat an operation as I've ever seen in the last 15 years," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Wednesday from Sandbag Central. "What I mean by that, it's so organized. It's nice to see all the activity."
Eighth-grader Matt Veit, among the students who were tying bags and stacking them, said it was hard work but worth it.
"We want to help the community, like Good Samaritans," he said. "I think we'll be OK. People here in Fargo, we tend to do a nice job."