Red River tops historic marker, undermines dike

Icy flooding
John Iverson wades through icy water after leaving his home in Oxbow, North Dakota. Water from the Red and Wild Rice Rivers has started to overtake the small community about 15 miles south of Fargo.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Red River rose to a 112-year high early Friday, breaching a dike south of downtown and forcing authorities to order the evacuations of about 150 homes.

The river had risen to 40.32 feet early Friday - more than 22 feet above flood stage and inches more than the previous high water mark of 40.1 feet set April 7, 1897. It was expected to crest as high as 43 feet on Saturday.

Just after 2 a.m. Friday, residents in one neighborhood were roused from sleep and ordered to evacuate after authorities found a leak in a dike. The leak left the integrity of the dike in question, police Capt. Tod Dahle said.

Watching the waters rise
Susan Boyd watches as the Red River waters rise to the dike built around her Moorhead home Thursday, March 26, 2009.
Jeffrey Thompson

"It's not like there's a wall of water going through," he said. "It's just a significant leak."

Fargo spokeswoman Karena Lunday said it was the only overnight breech and crews would start working to patch it later Friday morning.

Moorhead officials this morning issued a so-called Code Red warning to residents north of Interstate 94, up to 28th Street. It includes homes that run from the river east to 8th St.

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Officials have asked people there to leave their homes ahead of the rising water, although it is not yet a mandatory evacuation order.

Sorting supplies
Susan Boyd, right, received help from her daughter Haley Boyd, 19, as they sorted through personal belongings that had been moved from their basement Thursday, March 26, 2009. The rising waters of the Red River were threatening the Boyd's Moorhead neighborhood where voluntary evacuations were ordered Thursday.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Concordia College is in the evacuation area, and student Kelsey Robbins was packing her car late Thursday night to head home to Stillwater.

Robbins says she spent time sandbagging this week and is worried about the people she helped.

"I'm still flustered a little bit, and worried for people that have homes here. Obviously I don't want anything bad to happen to them. It's very emotional," said Robbins. "It was nice to be out helping them, but it's really sad at the same time because you don't want anything bad to happen to their homes."

The Red Cross has set up a shelter at Moorhead High School. The coordinator of the shelter said about 29 people were there at 6 a.m., although he expected more to arrive this morning.


Moorhead officials they also issued a warning to residents to prepare for sewer backups in homes everywhere west of 20th St. That includes much of the city.

Authorities say residents should try to block lower level drains and toilets, because river water may force untreated sewage back into homes.

Fargo's largest hospital evacuated patients Thursday. About 180 people were being transferred by air, ambulances and buses to hospitals in Bismarck, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, S.D., and elsewhere, a MeritCare Hospital spokesman said.

Residents in the area have been scrambling in subfreezing temperatures to pile sandbags along the river, and spent much of Thursday preparing for a crest of 41 feet, only to have forecasters add up to 2 feet to their estimate.

Messy work
Volunteers slogged through a snow and water mix as the Red River seeped through a dike in Moorhead Thursday, March 26, 2009.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Volunteers are still needed to fill sandbags and raise dike levels. Fargo officials are encouraging people to register before entering work areas. There are traffic congestion problems when unregistered volunteers drive their vehicles into sandbagging areas rather than ride on buses.

"Things have changed now, pretty much every hour," said Natasha Conway, director of the volunteer hotline call center. "So we have priority lists of where volunteers need to get sent. You need to really be in contact with those people that have the information."

Travel around some parts of Fargo and Moorhead has become difficult. There's still snow and ice on the roads left from a blizzard earlier this week. More roads and bridges have closed because of the flood.

Many residents were shaken by the flood forecast, which would bring the Red to its highest level in history.

Thank you
A sign hung on the front porch of a Moorhead home Thursday, March 26, 2009.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"I've lived here 40 years and over a 30-minute span I've reached a point where I'm preparing to evacuate and expect never to sleep in my house again," said Tim Corwin, 55, whose south Fargo home was sheltered by sandbags to 43 feet.

Dick Bailly, 64, choked up as he looked out over his backyard dike.

"It was demoralizing this morning," Bailly said, his eyes welling. "We got a lot of work to do. People have the will to respond, but you can only fight nature so much, and sometimes nature wins."

Gov. John Hoeven urged residents not to let down. "We know they're tired, but we need to hang in there and continue the work," he said.

Moorhead shelter
Moorhead residents who are leaving their homes are going to the Red Cross shelter at Moorhead High School. A few people trickled into the building last night.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Hoeven called for 500 more National Guard members to join 900 already part of the effort.

The city was also blocking off its main roadways Friday, so sandbag trucks could get to where they were needed most.

The National Weather Service said in its follow-up statement that the Red was expected to crest between 41 and 42 feet by Saturday, but could reach 43 feet. It said water levels could remain high for three days to a week - a lengthy test of on-the-fly flood control.

Several unusual factors sent the Red River surging to historic heights this year. The winter was unusually cold and snowy, which left a large snowpack sitting on top of frozen ground that couldn't absorb it. Then a warm snap and heavy rain quickly melted the snow and sent it into toward the river.

And it all happened to a river that flows north. When most rivers in the United States melt, they send the extra water south toward warmer, open water. When the Red breaks up, it sends hunks of ice north into colder water that is often still frozen.

"Record flows upstream of Fargo have produced unprecedented conditions" on the river, which "is expected to behave in ways never previously observed," the weather service said.

In rural areas south of Fargo, crews were rescuing stranded residents. Pat Connor of the Cass County sheriff's department said 70 people had been rescued by Thursday evening, and he expected that number to grow.

The American Red Cross is sending another 150 people to the North Dakota flood zone to operate emergency shelters to join the 85 such volunteers who are already there.

Red Cross spokeswoman Courtney Johnson says the relief organization already has shelters set up three cities in North Dakota - Grand Forks, Bismarck and Fargo - and one on the other side of the Red River in Moorhead, Minn.

She says the additional staff isn't necessarily a sign that the Red Cross is expecting a disaster. It's an acknowledgment that with the Red now projected to crest at an unprecedented 43 feet, the Red Cross has to be prepared.

She says the shelter teams coming to the area include volunteers with expertise in logistics, mental health and disaster medicine.

The federal government announced a disaster declaration Thursday for seven Minnesota counties. The entire state of North Dakota had received a disaster designation earlier in the week.

On the Canadian side of the northern-flowing Red River, ice-clogged culverts, ice jams and the rising river threatened Manitoba residents. Several homes were evacuated north of Winnipeg and several dozen houses were flooded.

"We're in for probably the worst two weeks that this community has ever seen in its entire existence," said St. Clements Mayor Steve Strang. The Red River crest threatening North Dakota isn't expected to arrive in Manitoba for another week.