Weather service drops Fargo crest prediction again

Throwing sandbags
Ajay Thapa, a sophomore at South High School in Fargo, N.D., hands off a sandbag to a classmate on Friday, April 26, 2013. More than 1,000 student volunteers helped build sandbag dikes in Fargo on Friday. The Red River is expected to crest just below 38 feet next week, according to a National Weather Service flood forecast.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- A Red River flood that a week ago was predicted to challenge the record is now unlikely to reach the 100,000-plus sandbags and the miles of clay levees built for defense, Fargo officials said Monday.

The National Weather Service lowered Wednesday's expected crest forecast in Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., to 35.5 feet, which would be the ninth-highest flood but virtually a non-event in Fargo, as most structures are protected to 38 feet.

"It can be frustrating," Fargo city engineer April Walker, a flood control specialist, said Monday when asked about a flood fight that will be for naught. "But at the same time it's way better to be prepared than have the crest rise and not be prepared for that."

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Walker spoke outside Fargo City Hall, which oddly enough is one of the few buildings that needs emergency protection when the Red River reaches 30 feet, which is considered major flood stage.

"We're good. We've got everything we need out there and in place," Walker said. "We're watching and waiting for the crest to occur."

Workers have spent the last week building emergency floodwalls to protect Fargo to 40 feet after an earlier weather service prediction. Fargo officials say about $2 million so far this year has been spent on flood protection, about half for the placement of large portable sandbags.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said during Monday's city commission meeting that he wasn't in the mood to hear second-guessing about the cost of this year's flood fight and said people should be happy that the river should crest much lower than expected.

"If we failed, it would be in the billions of dollars," Walaker said. "People have to realize that we have to build to what the National Weather Service says we do."

Greg Gust, a weather service meteorologist, said forecasters "misjudged April's vagaries" in climate. The earlier predictions built in the possibility of a rapid snowmelt and steady precipitation. Instead, the conditions are ideal for a gradual melt cycle.

"We were very concerned as all signals were pointing to both a rapid warm-up and heavy rain for us in the latter half of April," Gust said. "For the southern Red River Basin, the long and agonizingly slow thaw season has worked out well."

The river was measured at 32.06 feet at 5 p.m. Monday.

Flood cleanup in Fargo is likely to start next week, when crews will begin picking up sandbags from neighborhoods and tearing down clay levees. Removal of the earthen dikes has typically cost about $330,000 for each mile, Walker said.

Since 2009, Fargo has faced three major floods and spent a total of $18.3 million, beginning with an $8.4 million bill for the record crest of 40.84 feet. The river reached 36.99 feet in 2010 and 38.81 feet in 2001.

Fargo has been reimbursd for 84 percent of that, said Kent Costin, the city's director of finance. The formula for repayment is 75 percent from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and 10 percent from the state, he said.

"We all do the best we can with each event," said Walker, the engineer. "The city has to be prepared and we appreciate those people who did come out and help hit the mark we needed to hit."