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Red River continues to recede

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6 p.m.

    The Red River continued its slow retreat Sunday after cresting a day earlier, dropping below record level to 39.88 feet. 

City officials have said they would breathe easier when the river falls to 37 feet or lower, expected by Saturday, meaning a lengthy test for sandbag levees that residents hastily constructed last week.

Blackhawk
An Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter airlifts a one-ton bag filled with sand to the Oak Grove neighborhood in Fargo. Bringing sand into the area was not possible over land due to two contingency dikes built to protect the city in case of another breach in the levee.
MPR Photo/Than Tibbetts

      Fargo faces another test this week as a storm approached with up to a half-foot of snow and powerful wind gusts that could send ferocious waves crashing into and over the already-stressed levees.

5:10 p.m.

 The small town of Hendrum, Minn., is doing fast work on its dike system to contend with a sudden rise of the Red River.

      Police Chief Mike Smart says the Red came up suddenly overnight to within 4 inches of the top of the town's dike. Smart says the call for volunteers went out to quickly sandbag atop the dikes.

      Smart says he thinks the situation is under control.

Sandbaggers
Firefighters had to build a small dike Sunday morning as part of a plan to relieve pressure on the storm sewer system in south Moorhead. The crew installed a large pump to help get rid of excess water.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

      Hendrum is a town of about 320 people about 25 miles north of the Fargo-Moorhead area.

The states of Michigan and Vermont are sending emergency staff to northwestern Minnesota to help with the Red River flood response, through a program called the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. EMAC, which was established in 1996, allows states to share emergency resources quickly. 

According to Minnesota EMAC coordinator Kim Ketterhagen, Michigan has sent an EMAC A-Team, which helps facilitate the state-to-state logistics and contracts involved with loaning resources.

"It's a big help to have someone else work out these details so Minnesota's own EMAC staff can concentrate on immediate flood actions," Ketterhagen said.

Vermont has sent information technology specialists to help sift through the huge amount of data coming in for reports and updates that help keep the emergency operation center running smoothly.

Some homeowners left notes on their homes
Some homeowners who evacuated their homes in Moorhead left information behind in case their neighborhood gets flooded.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Minnesota is also supporting emergency efforts in North Dakota, including sending several ambulances and crews, veterinarians and supplies, and helicopters. 

4:00 p.m.

Officials have sealed off Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo, as volunteers and school officials began to clean up and assess the damage caused by an early morning breach in the levee protecting the school's campus.

Spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell said two buildings were flooded after water gushed out from the permanent levee. Both buildings still had six inches of water in the basement Sunday afternoon, and one building also had water in the main level.

Volunteers were busy filling sandbags on the campus, which is now surrounded by another contingency dike, as school officials hurried to build sandbag dikes around the other buildings on its campus.

High waters in a Moorhead backyard
This photo shows the view from a backyard deck in south Moorhead. The watermark on the neighbor's fence shows how much the river level has dropped recently.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Army National Guard helicopters were delivering sand by the ton in large bags, as two contingency levees now separate the school from accessible roadways. 

Many of the homes in the Oak Grove neighborhood have been evacuated. Residents left notes with contact information and police had tied yellow caution tape on front door handles throughout the neighborhood.

In Clay County, Minn., Sheriff Bill Bergquist said the receding water levels are good, but that's not a sign that all is clear.

"I know people are coming back just because the water's coming down, but we've been told that could fluctuate by a foot at any time with all the new moisture coming in," Bergquist said. 

Police said they will let people who evacuated their homes come back to check on things. But they said they'd prefer if people then left again and not try to stay.

Firefighters work to install pipe for a new pump
Firefighters work to install pipe for a new pump to move some of the water back into the river.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

3:15 p.m.  

Residents in some parts of Moorhead are likely to see an increased police presence in the coming days, if they haven't already.

People in some areas will need to show a valid identification card and explain why they're in certain parts of town, according to Police Chief Dave Ebinger.

He said police are trying to keep out people who might try to take advantage of evacuated homes. He also said there is a "zero tolerance" policy for people climbing onto dikes or tampering with equipment like pumps or flood gates.

"Anybody that wants a good view of the river and climbs up on a dike is jeopardizing the safety of their neighbors," Ebinger said. "We will take immediate enforcement action. I've asked the County Attorney to look at the specific statutes on that and what level of prosecution we can anticipate."

There have been a handful of arrests so far this week, including a CNN cameraman who was arrested for shooting video atop a dike in Fargo.

2:45 p.m.

Elected officials in the Fargo-Moorhead area are warning residents against complacency now that water levels on the Red River have started to ebb.

State Rep. and former Moorhead Mayor Morrie Lanning said it might be premature to breathe easier, because it might be two weeks before levels drop enough. 

"This situation this year is very different form 1997 and prior floods," Lanning said. "We still have a major melt before us, and if we get another system coming through here in the next couple days, that's going to add even more to it."

Moorhead's current Mayor Mark Voxland also reminded residents that water is moving at a faster pace than usual, and that adds tremendous amounts of pressure on the levees. This could add to more breaches in the dikes holding water back this week, Voxland said. 

2:10 p.m.

The National Weather Service says blizzard conditions are expected in southwest and south central North Dakota through Monday night. 

The heaviest snow is expected along the South Dakota border in the central part of the state. Forecasters say areas around Ellendale, Fort Yates and Linton could get up to 14 inches. The cities of Bismarck and Dickinson and other points along Interstate 94 could get up to a foot of snow, along with strong winds. 

Officials in Bismarck and Mandan are telling residents not to get rid of their sandbags. They worry ice jams will form and lead to flooding later.

In Fargo, nearly a thousand volunteers are filling sandbags at the FargoDome that will be used in an event of an emergency. Even though the Red River has receded some, officials are urging residents to remain on alert, because the river is still a threat, according to Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker. 

"We've had an awful lot of pressure to vacate the city, and we refuse to do that," Walaker said. "We will have losses, we understand that.  But we're not going to abandon our city. We've invested too much in this process to walk away from it."

1:30 p.m.

The Associated Press is reporting that fewer than 800 homeowners in the Fargo-Moorhead areas most threatened by the swollen Red River have insurance policies covering flood damage. 

This is despite a decade-long push by state and federal officials to get people signed up, according to federal records obtained by The Associated Press.

Federal Emergency Management Agency reports show that in Fargo, with a population of 92,000, only 586 homeowners have policies - including just 90 in the area of highest flood risk. In neighboring Moorhead, a city of 30,000, that number is a mere 145.

In fact, only 4,558 homeowners in the entire state of North Dakota and fewer than 9,000 in Minnesota carried flood insurance as of January, the most recent figures available.

FEMA doesn't require people to buy flood insurance unless they're in a designated flood plain and have a federally backed mortgage.

1:00 p.m.

State and federal officials say ice dams in the Fargo-Moorhead area are slowing the flow of the Red River near Oslo, about 25 miles north of East Grand Forks, causing it to have unpredictable tendencies. 

Minnesota and North Dakota officials are developing a plan to break up the ice dams with the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Guard and local officials. 

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service is tracking a winter storm that will impact the area on Monday and Tuesday. There is a 70 percent chance of four or more inches of snow. The storm is also expected to bring high winds that could cause waves in the flood area.

On the roads, officials with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Minnesota State Patrol are warning drivers that extra enforcement is present at several temporary four-way intersections southeast of East Grand Forks. In North Dakota, the Department of Transportation has also closed 31 miles of Interstate 29 north of Fargo due to water on the road.

Travelers are being urged to pay attention to rapidly changing conditions because of the flooded Red River that may result in more road closures. The latest conditions are being posted on the department's Web site www.511.nd.gov and www.511mn.org.

12:15 p.m.

National Guard troops have brought in hundreds of bags - each holding about a ton of sand - into the flood zone and will drop at least ten of them into breaks in the levees near the Oak Grove area of Fargo today.

Earlier this morning, the slowly receding Red River briefly breached a dike in the area, sending water flowing into buildings at a school campus before it was contained, officials said.

The extent of the damage at Oak Grove Lutheran School wasn't immediately known. The surrounding neighborhood on the city's north side was not evacuated, but residents of some areas were told to plug their sewers and monitor basements.

Oak Grove Lutheran Principal Morgan Forness said city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Guard unsuccessfully tried to contain the gushing water to one building after a permanent flood wall panel at the school buckled around 1:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, officials are trying to reach people today who have been cut off by flood waters.

Dwight Diehl, sheriff of Cass County, North Dakota, said National Guard troops and sheriff's deputies will boat to houses that are cut off to see what residents might need.

"We're going to get contact information from you and any supplies-type stuff that you might need in coming days," Diehl said. "You might be cut off from us but you're certainly not forgotten by us and we'll be coming to check on you regularly."

The National Guard is also using military drones to survey the flood from the air.

11:30 a.m.

Health officials say two deaths in central and western North Dakota are related to flooding. The Health Department says both involved heart problems linked to flood fighting work. No names or details have been released.

Health officials in that state also reported 50 flood-related injuries statewide. They range from wrist and ankle stress to serious car accidents from washed out roads.

Residents in Fargo along the Red River have been feverishly filling sandbags to help hold back the rising water. National Weather Service officials say the river may have crested, but it still could rise up to a foot more.

Meanwhile, flooding in the area hasn't caused many people to flee to shelters. 

The American Red Cross says only 267 people were at six shelters in Fargo and Moorhead as of midnight Saturday night.

Spokeswoman Courtney Johnson said Sunday that the number of people has been steady and she doesn't expect a big increase unless the flooding worsens. Johnson says that's because many people have friends or family to take them in.

About one-fifth of Moorhead's households have been asked to evacuate. Hundreds have been forced from their homes in Fargo.

10:45 a.m.

The National Weather Service continued its flood warning this morning for the Crow Wing River in North Central Minnesota. 

As of 10 a.m., minor flooding continued along the Crow Wing River in Southwestern Cass County. Officials reported that levels upstream of the dam in Pillager have fallen in the past 24 hours. 

However, water levels have risen 4 to 6 inches downstream of the dam. The Weather Service expects additional flooding of low-lying areas along the river, as well as ice jam flooding that may cause rapid water level rises. 

In North Dakota, record flood warnings also continued today for several rivers, including the James River near the Ludden Dam in Dickey County, Pipestem Creek near Pingree in Stutsman County and the James River Basin, including Lamoure, the Ludden Dam, and Pingree. 

Flood warnings for the area have been extended until late Tuesday to Wednesday nights.

Officials with the weather service continued to warn motorists to not drive into areas where water tops the roadway. 

10:25 a.m.

Efforts to hold back the Red River in the Fargo-Moorhead area are not keeping people away from their usual Sunday ritual of going to church.

First Presbyterian Church in Fargo is welcoming congregants from First Presbyterian in Moorhead this hour because the Moorhead church is an evacuation area.

Pastor Nancy Emerson says many people called this morning and were relieved to hear church was still on.

"I can't tell you how important it was for me to get up and put on a dress instead of wearing jeans and a sweatshirt," Emerson said. "I finally realized what day it is - it's Sunday - because the last nine days have been a blur."

Even the mayor of Fargo began this morning's media briefing with a moment of silence.

10:15 a.m.

Fargo officials have requested more volunteers to resume sandbagging today but in Moorhead, city leaders say they have enough bags to get them through the day, if needed. 

Volunteers in Fargo were expected to begin assembling sandbags for a 24-hour shift at the Fargo Dome after church services in the heavily Lutheran city of more than 90,000 residents. The mayor began his briefing Sunday morning with a prayer.

This is the first time the Fargodome is being used as an emergency sandbagging facility. 

In Moorhead, Don Anderson has been helping coordinate volunteers throughout the week. He said more volunteers can be called in at a moment's notice. 

"There's a little bit of relief that the rivers went down a few inches, so we know we're not gaining more water," Anderson said.  "We've never lost and I don't think we're going to lose this time either."

To prevent additional dike breaches, officials planned to begin dropping one-ton sandbags from helicopters Sunday to deflect the violent current of the Red River and keep it from eroding vulnerable sections of the levees.

The aerial effort also includes Air Force Predator drones that are being used to watch flood patterns from the air. Crews on the ground are keeping constant watch over the miles of dikes holding water back.

9:35 a.m.

The Associated Press is reporting the state's Mobile Medical Unit will be heading to Moorhead today to provide emergency medical services in case floodwaters cut off residents from area hospitals.

This is the first time the Mobile Medical Unit has been deployed.

It's a tractor-trailer that opens into a 1,000-square foot stand-alone medical treatment center. It includes eight patient beds, a lab, pharmacy, ventilators and a portable X-ray.

The Mobile Medical Unit was requested by Clay County because of the flooding. It will set up at Horizon Middle School in Moorhead and will begin operating on Monday.

9:15

Crews will be out all day today inspecting levees around the Red River in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Despite weather service determinations that the river may already have hit its first crest at just under 41 feet, the river is expected to stay more than 20 feet above flood stage for several days. It's likely that the water levels will fluctuate and additional crests are possible.

Mike Redlinger, Moorhead's city administrator, said the city isn't about to let its guard down.

"We really want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to maintain the integrity of those dike systems over the next week," Redlinger said. "This is going to be a long process and a long road...we do know that we've got quite a bit of flood fight ahead of us."

Early Sunday, the slowly receding Red River briefly breached a dike in Fargo, sending water flowing into buildings at a school campus before it was contained in the enormous effort to save the city, officials said.

The extent of the damage at Oak Grove Lutheran School wasn't immediately known. The surrounding neighborhood on the city's north side was not evacuated, but residents of some areas were told to plug their sewers and monitor basements.

Oak Grove Lutheran Principal Morgan Forness said city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Guard unsuccessfully tried to contain the gushing water to one building after a permanent flood wall panel at the school buckled around 1:30 a.m.

"They made a gallant effort ... but the power of the river is just too much," he told KFGO radio. "They gave it everything they had, and it just - we couldn't contain it. It came center of campus, and now, it's inundating all of the buildings."

The city said the breach was caused by erosion and started when water came up through the floor of one building and infiltrated the campus.

"I think there's a little bit of divine intervention here -- in the sense that we built a secondary dike to help protect the school, and that's going to be probably end up helping to protect the neighborhood," school President Bruce Messelt told KFGO.

City officials in Moorhead said the community needs to remain diligent, despite the more optimistic flood forecast from the National Weather Service. 

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said the city will continue to maintain it's dikes for at least the next week as a precaution.

"Don't expect it to be dropping quickly. Don't be surprised if it goes up," Voxland said. "There could be a rise very quickly of six inches yet, maybe still make it to 42 feet, but they're starting to think that the main flow through the river has kind of gotten to its maximum velocity. That's good news. Of course the bad news is that it's going to stay there for probably seven days."

There were a number of minor breaches of Moorhead's dike system over the weekend. But rapid response teams quickly prepared the leaks.

By early Sunday, the Red River had dropped to 40.25 feet, still more than 22 feet above flood stage. The river may fluctuate up to a foot and remain at dangerous levels for a week, meaning an agonizing several days before people can relax.

The National Weather Service said the river crested at 12:15 a.m. Saturday at 40.82 feet.

Water already has forced hundreds of residents in the Fargo area from their homes and submerged basements and yards in an untold number of houses along the river. Emergency crews in boats had to rescue about 150 people from their homes in neighboring communities in Minnesota, where about 20 percent of households in Moorhead had been urged to leave.

The city requested more volunteers to resume sandbagging Sunday morning. Many were expected to turn out after church services in Fargo, a heavily Lutheran town of more than 90,000 residents.

National Weather Service forecasters say the river is retreating because cold weather - just 17 degrees at 7 a.m. Sunday - has been freezing water that normally would be flowing into the river. 

Officials in charge of the flood-response effort deployed high-tech Predator drone aircraft to survey the area, called up more National Guard troops and brought in hundreds of bags that each hold a ton of sand and could be dropped by helicopter into breaks in the levees.

Adam Rasmussen, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said crews will be out 24 hours a day looking for levee breaches. He said it's critical to keep levees from shifting as temperatures warm up during the daylight hours. 

"We will get some seepage and it's nothing to be worried about unless it starts to happen so fast that it takes the sand with it," Rasmussen said, adding that a little bit of leaking is okay because it helps relieve pressure from the levees. 

Volunteers also have been asked to inspect the levees for problems, joining National Guard inspection teams. The task is monumental, with more than 35 miles of levees around Fargo.

"I don't think there's an inch of riverfront on the Fargo side that doesn't have some kind of levee," said city engineer Mark Bittner. "We encourage neighborhoods to get together and have their own dike patrols and assist us."

The main focus now is whether the long line of levees will be able to hold up against the weight of the river water, regardless of its level. Engineers say that anytime water is pressed up against a levee for a considerable period of time, there is a risk of catastrophic flooding.

In Oakport Township north of Moorhead, about thirty homes are flooded beyond repair, according to supervisor Greg Anderson, who expects the number to go higher before the flood is over.

"It's just heartbreaking to see what's going on with these houses," Anderson said. "People work all their life, save everything up.  Anybody that lost half their money in the stock market just lost the other half in their house this year."

Anderson patrolled his neighborhood in a front-end loader Saturday, as most streets were under a foot of water.  

Even in homes where the dikes and sandbag barriers are working, there is water coming up through toilets and other plumbing in basements, according to Anderson.

(MPR News reporters Jess Mador, Ambar Espinoza, Tom Robertson, Stephanie Hemphill, Than Tibbetts and Tom Weber contributed to this report.) 

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)