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Midwest hopes levees hold

BY SUSAN KIM | Wahpeton, ND | April 7, 2001

"There is no telling what impact that's going to have."

—Pat Slattery

Residents in the Dakotas and Minnesota faced a precarious flood situation over the weekend as heavy rains moved through the region.

Emergency crews were shoring up levees, warning residents to be prepared, and simply praying that new flood protection systems -- put in place after 1997's devastating floods -- hold.

The next several days could be the biggest test since 1997 for the Midwest as the Red River rises to levels rivaling those during 1997's floods. Communities like Wahpeton, ND, Breckenridge, MN, and Olivia, MN were closing roads and taking other emergency measures.

Forecasters said the Red River could rise to 19.5 feet in the area around Wahpeton and neighboring Breckenridge by late Tuesday or early Wednesday. Flood stage there is 10 feet, and Wahpeton has been preparing for up to 20 feet. In 1997, the river crested in Wahpeton at 19.42 feet.

South Dakota was also on edge as the Big Sioux River swelled over the weekend, threatening to flood the communities of Watertown and Castlewood. As officials warily watched for ice jams on the river, 18 homes in a mobile home park in southwest Watertown were evacuated late Friday night.

Though the river heights will rival those of 1997, flood potential depends on how well new levee systems work, said Pat Slattery, spokesperson for the central regional office of the National Weather Service. "Flooding will vary from place to place," he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers has just completed a new levee system designed to better protect communities like Wahpeton, ND.

Adding to the unpredictable nature of floods in the state is the fact that several agricultural levees have been removed over the past few years. "There is no telling what impact that's going to have," said Slattery.

Weekend storms threaten to dump more rain on already- saturated ground in the Red River area.

Fargo, ND has also been under flood watches this week as snowmelt occurs in addition to the precipitation.

Also in North Dakota, the National Weather Service reported that forecasters expect moderate to major flooding along the Pembina River. Some minor flooding has already occurred in the Souris and James river basins. Flood warnings were in effect for the lower Souris and James rivers.

Staff from the City of Grand Forks Engineering Department completed an inspection of the city's levee system, and also held pre-flood meetings to gauge readiness.

Faith-based groups such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief have alerted their local representatives who will respond to flood-related needs as they arise.

The Red River flows from south to north and, in the spring, tends to spill over its banks when water flow hits sections of the river that are still frozen. This year, though, there is some good news regarding the potential for such ice jams. "Major portions of the river are already ice-free," said Rob Keller, public affairs officer for North Dakota Emergency Management.

North Dakota has seen flooding during the last eight years, particularly during 1997 when devastating floods followed by fire leveled Grand Forks. Devils Lake, which has been continually rising for several years and submerging homes and farmland, is predicted to increase its volume more than usual this year.

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