Battening down in Fargo-Moorhead as possible record flood looms

Stacking sandbags
Landon Klein, a student from Discovery Middle School in Fargo, N.D., stacks sandbags on Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at Sandbag Central. A large group of students from Discovery volunteered at Sandbag Central on its first day of operation.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

Flood preparations will move into high gear this week in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Construction crews and volunteers will build emergency sandbag dikes and earthen levees as the communities prepare once again for a possible record Red River flood.

On Tuesday, Fargo city workers will start delivering more than a million sandbags to neighborhoods.

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Backyard dike construction will start later in the week, said senior engineer April Walker.

"We're going to bring out high school students on Thursday and Friday in those neighborhoods," Walker said. "Get as many bags placed as possible. We'll work with the neighborhoods over the weekend to try and button it up."

As the city prepares for its fourth flood in five years, crews have sandbag dike construction down to a science.

In 2011, Walker said, high school students moved 700,000 sandbags in just a day and a half.

On Monday crews will start placing so-called trap bags in a couple of Fargo neighborhoods. Trap bags are 6-foot-tall sandbags that can be filled with a loader and connected to create a temporary floodwall.

Flood preparation across the river in Moorhead is very different. Much of the city is protected by permanent earthen levees after the city purchased and removed more than 200 flood-prone homes along the river.

A few dozen homes could still need sandbag protection. Moorhead has about 400,000 sandbags left over from the 2011 flood. The City Council will decide on Monday if they want to fill more sandbags as a precaution.

Moorhead will also hold flood information meetings for residents on Monday evening.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said he was confident that his city will be prepared for a river level of 42 feet.

The city learned from the record flood in 2009, when the Red River rose to nearly 41 feet, Walaker said.

"And another foot above that is fine," he said. "If there's any uncomfortableness in the process, if for some reason the river went over 44, it's almost impossible to protect the community when it goes at that level."

The National Weather Service was forecasting a likely river crest in Fargo from 38 to 42 feet. Flood forecasting is complicated this year by the late spring. This will be the latest spring flood in Fargo-Moorhead history.

The flood risk will be much clearer when the weather service can release a more specific river forecast, Walaker said.

"They've got clues, but it's a puzzle right now in trying to predict," he said, "until the river starts flowing where they can actually measure the flows coming in to the Red River and measuring what's going on before they put out a crest date or a crest."

That specific river forecast should be ready by midweek. Based on that forecast, Fargo and Moorhead will decide if they need to build backup earthen levees to protect the city if a sandbag dike fails.

Much of the flood preparation should be completed by early next week.