Red River crests but remains high

Faith-based organizations prepare response as emergency officials urge residents to stay vigilant.

BY STEPHANIE BACKUS | FARGO, ND | March 26, 2009


The Red River Valley Water Rescue team brings in a home owner who needed to be rescued from the rising waters of the Red River.
Credit: Patsy Lynch/FEMA

The crest may have past, but residents in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, MN., still have a long week ahead, hoping the sandbag-constructed dikes continue to hold back the floodwaters.

Friday the water level on the Red River topped the previous high mark, set in 1897, as it passed 40.1 feet. A flash flood warning was issued in Fargo and residents along the river were told to head west, keeping radios tuned for emergency information.

Cracks in several dikes prompted many of the evacuations, which included a senior living center in Fargo. The North Dakota National Guard said it was ready to evacuate as many as 20,000 residents in the first round of mandatory evacuations. Fargo's mayor made a plea to small businesses to close, in order to allow major roads to be kept clear for sandbagging operations and law enforcement. Travel was banned on all major roads in Fargo on Thursday.

Hospitals in the Fargo area also began evacuating their patients to other hospitals in and out of state.

The combination of heavy snow, an early melt and now more heavy snow and rain is responsible for the early Spring flooding. The combination is producing a runoff that has set many new records along the northern Red River. "I don't understand why we are having 500 year floods every decade," said a Lutheran volunteer in Fargo.

Some of the evacuations in Fargo were voluntary on Friday, with the understanding they could become mandatory. Officials wanted residents who lived between the first-line and contigency dikes to leave their homes in the next 24 hours. Mandatory evacuations have also been put in place for 35-40 households.

State and local officials were on-scene helping residents who were asked to keep their radios on while leaving their homes for information on the correct routes to take out of harm's way.

The American Red Cross opened a shelter at Moorhead High School for the public. Officials are asking residents who evacuate to call a registration number so law enforcement and other officials can reach them and know they are safe.

The evacuation notices came after the National Weather Service rose the predicted crest level of the Red River to 42 feet, with warnings that the river could reach 43 feet. At 7 p.m., the river rose above the 1997 flood levels and by midnight was within inches of the all-time record of 40.1 feet.

Sandbagging operations are expected to continue through the night as authorities attempt to add another foot onto the current front-lines of defense from the water.

Volunteers have been filling sandbags for the past week. In Fargo, emergency officials are estimating another million bags are needed. By Tuesday, more than a million bags had been filled and placed in Fargo. Colleges and schools in the region have suspended classes this week to supplement the volunteers needed.

National faith-based disaster response organizations are also helping residents prepare and are planning a flood response.

"We're trying to be more proactive, knowing the flooding could be really bad," said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, of The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Other faith-based organizations including Lutheran Disaster Response, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army are amongst the organizations that have announced plans to respond.

Volunteer organizations in Minnesota and the Dakotas are holding daily conference calls to talk about what each organization is doing in preparation for the flooding.

"Right now, a lot of organizations are waiting to see where this is going to fall and what help is going to be needed," said Seth Gardner, president of the Minnesota Volunteers Active in Disasters (VOAD). "I was in a meeting (Thursday in Fargo) next to the room organizing the volunteers. The calls were ringing off the hook, both from people who needed help and wanted to help."

Gardner works with Nechama, an organization in the Jewish community which helps with disaster response. His organization is meeting with Lutheran Disaster Response in both North Dakota and Minnesota to try to develop a clean-up plan in Fargo and Moorhead, if the communities flood.

President Barack Obama has signed a major disaster declaration for North Dakota, making federal assistance available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations to help in flood fighting efforts.

The threat of flooding lies along rivers and lakes, as well as over-land flooding.

"Preparations are going on for over-land and river flooding fights. We had an incredible amount of snow (this winter). We've also had rain events this week and are anticipating blizzard conditions later in the week. The three episodes are coming together at one time, creating a real threat," said the Rev. Debra Ball-Kilbourne, a Disaster Relief Coordinator in North Dakota for The United Methodist Church.

Some residents are also preparing for the floods without the use of public water. Many communitiies lost the use of water during the first few days of flooding when city pumps began to fail.

"We lost a lot of water (pressure on Monday) and so people are using water sparingly," Ball-Kilbourne said. "Some communities lost it completely. Some communities had to be evacuated (Monday night). Some people lived far enough out of town that they had to be evacuated by helicopter."

Nearly 2,000 people have been evacuated in Central and Western regions of the state and in western Minnesota and that number is expected to rise as rapidly as the flood waters, according to officials. In Cass County south of Fargo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard manned airboats to evacuate more than 40 people Wednesday.

In Fargo, the city council approved an emergency evacution plan Wednesday night that essentially splits the city into seven zones.

The rising waters are forecasted to reach levels comparable to floods in 1997, according to the National Weather Service which raised its prediction of a Red River crest in Fargo and Moorhead to a record 41-feet Wednesday afternoon. Community members said conditions this year are similar to conditions just prior to 1997.

"We are looking at a situation with all the ingredients for near record flooding in the upper Midwest," said Jack Hayes, director of the National Weather Service. "Sudden snowpack melts due to warm temperatures or a heavy rain could further complicate the flooding on the northern plains."

"I don’t care how old you are, you’ve never seen this in the (Red River) Valley,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker told Inforum, a local news Website Wednesday.

The similarities to 1997 have emotional ties for residents.

"There are too many things alike in them," Ball-Kilbourne said. "It's like a flash back. We're doing many of the things we did before."

"I'm spending most of my time with disaster people planning response. There are definitely flash backs to '97 and the crest is expected at 41 feet -- a foot and a half higher than '97, so there's definitely some concern," Gardner said.

North Dakota's Gov. John Hoeven has requested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provide assistance in preparation for the expected flooding in Devils Lake, Red River of the North and South River basins. The Salvation Army in North Dakota is also working hand in hand with the government operations.

“When the sandbags show up to the neighborhoods, they must be unloaded and placed immediately,” said Captain Adam Moore, administrator of the Fargo Salvation Army. “That means there’s no time for volunteers to take breaks, or go to restaurants. But we can nourish these people as they perform the critical work needed to save this area from catastrophe.”

According to Ball-Kilbourne, almost everyone is helping out.

"Area schools and colleges are allowing students to go out and work (at sandbagging sites). Some of our companies have allowed employees to come and work. City employees and the guard are working together. VOAD agencies are all working together to do what we can without duplicating others' efforts," she said.

Ball-Kilbourne said right now, getting items to higher ground is important for residents who have lived through floods before.

"Some are moving things up from basements and for some, they're looking at what they do need to save," she said.

National disaster response organizations are working with local judicatories to determine needs.

Hazelwood said district disaster response coordinators for The United Methodist Church are keeping UMCOR informed on conditions in the region.

Lutheran Disaster Response is also waiting for word from local disaster coordinators on where national help can best be used. Local LDR volunteers are helping in sandbagging efforts and LDR is preparing for assistance in communities where flooding is happening.

Mike Nevergall, of Lutheran Disaster Services, said that he and LDR's director, the Rev. Kevin Massey, plan to travel to the area to meet with members of the community once water starts receding to determine needs. He said mitigation since the 1997 floods may help with some of the potential residential flooding.

"Grand Forks built a new levy after the '97 floods that is higher than before. These floods are probably going to be higher than the 1997 floods, but hopefully lower than that levy," he said.

A spokesperson for Catholic Charities Office of Disaster Response said Thursday staff was helping local Catholic Charities in both Bismark and Fargo prepare for the flooding.

The water is not expected to recede quickly, and community members are gearing up for a bad flood, according to Ball-Kilbourne.

"This battle will go on for the next three and a half weeks. It will not be quick and water is going to take a long time to recede."


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