Fargo downsizes Red River flood fight after revised forecast

Filling bags
Chase Nygaard, a contractor with Industrial Builders, Inc., packs trap bags to repel Red River flood waters on Monday, April 22, 2013.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

After a revised forecast, Fargo is downsizing efforts to fight Red River flooding.

The revision from the National Weather Service on Wednesday means fewer sandbags will be needed to prepare for a river crest expected late next week. The Red River is likely to crest in Fargo and Moorhead on May 2 or 3, and will be the latest spring flood crest on record.

After hearing of the changed forecast, Fargo leaders decided to build the sandbag dikes to 40 feet. Fargo officials had planned to build sandbag dikes to 43 feet, based on earlier projections of a potential record flood.

The revised forecast means instead of placing nearly 1.5 million sandbags in backyards, volunteers will only need to move about 100,000 sandbags.

Hundreds of high school students will build the sandbag dikes on Friday.

Some residents who hope to avoid potential damage to their yards from work crews want to wait to see if the river forecast changes again, Fargo Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney said.

Sandbag delivery
Sandbags are delivered from Sandbag Central to homes on S River Road in Fargo, N.D. on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. The removal of flood-prone homes and installation of permanent clay levees mean the city does not need as many sandbags to fight the rising Red River this year. Fargo will have about 1.5 million sandbags available this year.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

"The issue you have is safety. If you wait until we know exactly where the river is going to go, you do not want people down next to the water," Mahoney said. "The water is cold. If you slip and fall, it's a danger. So what we're going to do it try to button everything down this Friday and get ready for the water to come."

Across the Red River in Moorhead, the city plans to use about 62,000 sandbags to protect a dozen homes from the anticipated river crest.

The river forecast has changed to a range of 38 to 40 feet, slightly lower than the earlier expected range of 38 to 42 feet. The record flood level in Fargo is 40.8 feet.

The river forecast could again change because forecast models are experiencing difficulty with the late spring thaw, said National Weather Service forecaster Greg Gust.

"This year, because it's so late in the calendar year and there's no historical analog for this -- so in all the years we have a history of the river response in detail, and that goes back to the late 1800's, there is no year that is this late in the season," Gust said.

Gust said a couple of key factors will influence how the Red River behaves over the next two weeks: The amount of water that will soak into the soil as the snow thaws, and the amount of rain that will fall next week.

"Heavy rains are quite possible from Tuesday into Wednesday of next week, so we looked at what does it take to push the model to 40 feet," Gust said. "If we get thunderstorms with an inch or more of rain, that 40-foot range pops back up."

Every foot of flood protection is important for city leaders planning to fight the flood, and each foot is costly. To raise several miles of temporary dike by one foot can require hundreds of thousands of additional sandbags. Fargo officials say at higher river levels, building dikes and levees one foot higher can cost as much as $1 million.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said some residents think the city should cut back even more on the flood fight.

That would be a bad idea, he said.

"I know there's some reluctance out there. I mean, one of the questions I've been getting from the media is, are we spending too much money," Walaker said. "We either rely on the National Weather Service or we don't. But who is going to be there if we fail?"

Fargo needs to be over-prepared for the flood," Walaker said. He cautions residents to not be overconfident in light of the revised flood forecast.

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