'Big push' under way

Fargo officials are calling for another massive volunteer effort from area residents to get sandbag dikes finished by tonight in backyards threatened by rising water in drains and creeks.

Sandbagging line
West Fargo High School students help sandbag at the home of John Bertel on River Drive in south Fargo.<br><strong>David Samson </strong> / The Forum

Fargo officials are calling for another massive volunteer effort from area residents to get sandbag dikes finished by tonight in backyards threatened by rising water in drains and creeks.

With cold weather expected to follow overnight rain and snow, Mayor Dennis Walaker said at a news conference Tuesday that the window of opportunity to build strong dikes is small, but doable.

"(Today's) our big push," Walaker said, adding that he wants all areas of the city protected to a flood stage of 42 feet by the end of the day.

"We've made a tremendous amount of progress on the south side of Fargo. We need one more day," Walaker said.

"We need to go another 24 hours" of delivering and making sandbags, he said. "We need a really good day."


Dike and levee construction in most of the vulnerable areas of Fargo was 70 percent or more finished Tuesday, city figures indicated. But some spots, such as along Drain 27 in southwest Fargo, and North Terrace in the northside Oak Grove area need to be addressed today, officials said.

"We've had two great days in a row," Walaker said in calling for another big effort. "The confidence comes with what we saw today."

If sandbagging takes too long, overnight temperatures in the teens through the weekend could "create havoc" in placing sandbags, Walaker said. If there is a positive with the cold, it will slow the flow of the spring melt and the rise of the river, he said.

City engineers expected to inspect all dikes overnight to see where they needed to be bolstered, with sandbagging starting in earnest again today at 8 a.m.

Walaker said a contingency plan in case of dike failures will be released Thursday, as will an emergency evacuation plan. He did not elaborate on those plans.

The river at Fargo surpassed major flood stage of 30 feet at about 8 a.m. and had risen to 32.8 feet by 10:15 p.m. Tuesday. The National Weather Service's Web site shows the river hitting a crest of 40 feet at 7 a.m. Sunday.

Thousands of college, high school and middle school students responded to desperate pleas for volunteers Tuesday in Fargo and Moorhead. They passed sandbags so quickly in spots in Fargo and Moorhead that at times they outstripped the ability of officials to get finished bags or bags and sand to them, Walaker said.

"The kids did fantastic," he said.


North Dakota State University President Joseph Chapman said there won't be school today or Thursday so students and staff can continue to volunteer in the flood fight.

Fargo middle and high school students will also be allowed to continue sandbagging, said Dan Huffman, assistant superintendent for business services. Huffman said more than 2,100 students volunteered Tuesday.

Fargo Oak Grove Lutheran School students will also be joining the flood fight again today.

About 700 to 800 students from Hatton and Grand Forks, N.D., also volunteered to sandbag Tuesday.

In addition, about 800 North Dakota Army and Air National Guard members were taking part in the flood fight on the Fargo side of the Red River, and hundreds more were working on the Minnesota side.

So far, Fargo volunteers have made 1.3 million of the 2 million sandbags the city needs, said city Enterprise Director Bruce Grubb. He said sandbag-making at the Fargodome and the city's garbage facility will continue 24 hours a day until the goal is met.

"We're diking where we've never diked before," said Fargo City Engineer Mark Bittner.

Fargo is looking at building contingency levees near City Hall, the Oak Grove neighborhood, at South River Road to protect the water plant, River Drive south of 32nd Avenue South to about 40th Avenue South, and along Rose Creek south of 40th Avenue, Bittner said.


Officials were encouraged that the Red River at Wahpeton, N.D., appeared headed for a crest of about 18 feet, which would be almost 1½ feet lower than the 1997 crest.

National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Riddle said the river at Wahpeton barely rose from 17.49 feet to 17.50 feet from 8 to 9 a.m. As of 9 p.m. it had fallen to 17.3 feet.

Still a major concern for Fargo, Riddle said, is water from the Wild Rice River at Abercrombie, which was at 27.43 feet at 9:15 p.m. - just over 17 feet above flood stage - and is projected to hit a record 29 feet Thursday morning.

Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes asked motorists to yield to truck drivers who are transporting sandbags, and also to slow down to avoid sandbags that have fallen off trucks into the roadway. He also asked residents with non-emergency questions not to call 911.

In the Oak Creek and Meadow Creek and Rose Creek areas of south Fargo on Tuesday, lines of middle school, high school and college students snaked from streets, through side and backyards roiled with churned-up muck, passing sandbags to build dikes against flooding expected as the drains to the Red River start filling.

Preston Brekhus, 15, a Fargo South Campus II student, was covered from head to toe in mud by 12:30 p.m. Tuesday. He'd been sandbagging for three hours before taking a break.

The best part of it? "That's probably getting out of school," Brekhus said.

The worst part? He picked at his mud-slicked pants and jacket. "The worst part is getting muddy, and it's all cold."


Oak Creek residents were grateful for the help.

"I think the people who've come are just amazing," said Marion Harris, 4404 Oak Creek Drive. "I think everyone is just glad to have them here."

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